Scott Louis Panetti (m), aged 45
January 7, 2004
white, is scheduled to be executed in Texas on 5 February 2004. He
was sentenced to death in 1995 for killing his parents-in-law in
1992. He has a long history of serious mental illness, including
schizophrenia. He was hospitalized more than a dozen times in
numerous facilities before the crime.
Scott Panetti and
his second wife, Sonja Alvarado, separated in August 1992 because
of his drinking and abusive behavior. Sonja Alvarado took their
three-year-old daughter and went to stay with her parents, Amanda
and Joe Alvarado. She obtained a restraining order against her
husband. However, on the morning of 8 September 1992, Scott
Panetti shaved his head, dressed in military fatigues and drove to
the Alvarados' home, taking a sawn-off shotgun and a rifle with
him. He broke into the house and shot his parents-in-law at close
range with the rifle. He allowed Sonja and their daughter to leave.
Later that day he
changed into a suit and gave himself up to the police. He
subsequently said that "Sarge" (an auditory hallucination)
controlled him at the time of the crime, that divine intervention
had meant that the victims did not suffer, and that demons had
been laughing at him as he left the house.
In July 1994 a
hearing to determine whether Scott Panetti was competent to stand
trial - that is, whether he had sufficient mental capacity to
understand his situation and to assist in his defense - was
declared a mistrial after the jury was unable to reach a verdict.
A second hearing was held in September. His lawyer testified that
in the previous two years, he had had no useful communication with
Scott Panetti because of his delusional thinking. A psychiatrist
for the defense concluded that Panetti was not competent to stand
who testified for the prosecution agreed with the previous
diagnoses of schizophrenia, and that Scott Panetti's delusional
thinking could interfere with his communications with his legal
counsel, particularly under situations of stress such as in a
courtroom. However, he concluded that the defendant was competent
to stand trial. The jury agreed.
then waived his right to counsel, and the case went to trial in
September 1995 with the defendant acting as his own lawyer. Scott
Panetti dressed as a cowboy during the proceedings, and gave a
rambling presentation in his defense.
who attended the trial as witnesses have variously described the
trial as a "farce", a "joke", a "circus", and a "mockery". In
post-conviction affidavits they concluded, from their prior
knowledge of Panetti and their observations of him during the
proceedings, that he was incompetent to stand trial. For example,
a doctor who had previously treated Panetti for his mental illness
stated: "I thought to myself 'My God. How in the world can our
legal system allow an insane man to defend himself? How can this
who had treated Scott Panetti for schizophrenia in 1986 concluded
that Panetti was "acting out a role of an attorney as a facet of
the mental illness, not a rational decision to represent himself".
An attorney called by Scott Panetti as a witness later stated: "The
courtroom had the atmosphere of a circus. The judge just seemed to
let Scott run free with his irrational questions and courtroom
who was appointed as Panetti's stand-by counsel, wrote in an
affidavit: "This was not a case for the death penalty. Scott's
life history and long term mental problems made an excellent case
for mitigating evidence.
Scott did not
present any mitigating evidence because he could not understand
the proceeding." He recalled that Panetti had dressed in a costume
"like an old TV western", including cowboy hat, trousers tucked
into his cowboy boots, and cowboy shirt. The lawyer added that
Scott Panetti had "wanted to subpoena Jesus Christ, JFK, actors,
actresses, and people who had died... His trial was truly a
judicial farce, and a mockery of self-representation. It should
never have been allowed to happen".
The lawyer said
that he spoke to two jurors who "told me that Scott probably would
not have received the death penalty if the case had been handled
differently". Another lawyer spoke to two other jurors. They "said
that if Scott had been represented by attorneys that he would not
have received the death penalty". One of them said that the jurors
had voted for death out of their fear of his irrational behavior
at the trial. In Texas a jury can only vote for death if they
decide that the defendant will pose a future danger to society if
allowed to live.
father recalled in an affidavit that his son's behavior at the
trial had been "very bizarre": "I wanted to tell the judge to stop
the trial because my son was sick and incompetent". Scott
Panetti's sister said in her affidavit: "I think that justice
broke down in my brother's trial. It was not fair to let a
mentally ill man be his own attorney when he did not know what he
was doing. I am sorry to say that the trial was a farce. It was a
circus-like atmosphere. I never expected justice to allow this."
Sonja Alvarado, the victims' daughter, has also described the
trial as a "circus" and "a big joke". In a 1999 affidavit she said:
"I know now that Scott is mentally ill and should not be put to
who evaluated Scott Panetti in 1997 concluded that he suffers from
schizoaffective disorder (a combination of schizophrenia and manic
depression). This expert added that Panetti's "decision to waive
his own counsel was under the influence of persecutory delusions,
and his ability to represent himself in court was substantially
impaired by disturbances in his thought processes". The
psychiatrist further concluded that Panetti had not been competent
to stand trial.
A Growing Plea
for Mercy for the Mentally Ill on Death Row
By Ralph Blumenthal - The
New York Times
November 23, 2006
LIVINGSTON, Tex. — Scott
Louis Panetti says he was drowned and electrocuted as a child and
that he was recently stabbed in the eye in his death row cell by
the devil. Mr. Panetti says he has wounds that were inflicted by
demons and healed by President John F. Kennedy.
“The devil has been trying
to rub me out to keep me from preaching,” Mr. Panetti, explaining
why he faces execution, said in an interview from behind thick
glass in the Polunsky Unit here in East Texas, where condemned
prisoners are held before transfer to the death house 45 miles
west in Huntsville.
Despite Mr. Panetti’s
obvious mental illness — he was a mental patient long before he
gunned down his in-laws in 1992 — he served as his own lawyer at
his murder trial, throwing the courtroom into chaos with frequent
gibberish. Now the hyperactive and gangling Mr. Panetti, 48, has
become an illustration of the growing quandary over the
application of a 1986 Supreme Court decision barring execution of
The ruling appears to be
limited to those without the capacity to understand that they are
about to be put to death and why. Whether Mr. Panetti fits that
definition is a matter of dispute.
In an appeal to the
Supreme Court that could affect the cases of other mentally ill
prisoners awaiting execution, Mr. Panetti’s lawyers argue that
while he has a “factual awareness” of his execution, he has a
“delusional belief” that it is unconnected to his crime, and that
he should therefore be spared lethal injection.
The case of another
mentally ill death row inmate, Guy T. LeGrande, who represented
himself and is scheduled to die Dec. 1 in Raleigh, N.C., is going
through its final state appeals, with his lawyers arguing that he,
too, is delusional, and that he hastened his execution by
abandoning his defense.
Charged in the contract
killing of a woman whose husband pleaded guilty to plotting the
murder and is serving life, Mr. LeGrande, 47, says he is innocent
and was framed. He appeared in court in 1996 in a Superman T-shirt,
cursed the jurors as “Antichrists” and taunted them, “Pull the
switch and let the good times roll.” They took less than an hour
to sentence him to death.
Experts and advocates in
the field say the issue of executing the mentally ill is the next
frontier in death penalty law.
“This is an emerging issue,”
said Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty
Information Center, a research institute in Washington that
opposes capital punishment.
Mr. Dieter cited the
Panetti and LeGrande cases as gray areas in which “the death
penalty may be extreme punishment given their reduced culpability.”
Franklin E. Zimring, a
professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, and
author of “The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment”
(Oxford University Press, 2003), said there was something
“indigestible” about these cases.
“We assume people don’t
want to die,” Mr. Zimring said. “But these are defendants that
call the legal system’s bluff.”
Concern over execution of
the mentally disabled prompted the American Bar Association last
August to join a widening chorus of professionals calling for a
halt to death sentences and executions for defendants with severe
mental disorders that “significantly impaired” their rational
judgment or capacity to appreciate the wrongfulness of their
conduct. The moratorium was endorsed earlier by the American
Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association
and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
The groups also opposed
death sentences for prisoners with mental disorders that impaired
their ability to assist their lawyers and make rational decisions
on their appeals. The Supreme Court has already barred execution
for the mentally retarded and for juveniles.
“An increasing percentage
of people executed are people giving up their appeals,” said
Ronald J. Tabak, a lawyer at the firm Skadden, Arps, Slate,
Meagher & Flom in Manhattan and a specialist in capital cases who
led the bar association’s death penalty task force. “And of these,
a significant percentage have serious mental illness.”
The Supreme Court’s 1986
ruling, on a Florida case, Ford v. Wainwright, left much unclear.
Although no state permitted execution of the insane, the justices
affirmed that the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual
punishment prohibited it. But they did not provide a standard for
determining when someone was competent enough to be executed.
In a concurring opinion
later adopted as law by lower courts, Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr.
said it was enough “if the defendant perceives the connection
between his crime and the punishment.” Justice Powell also said
that the Constitution “forbids the execution only of those who are
unaware of the punishment they are about to suffer and why they
are to suffer it.”
execution of mentally ill killer
His illness argument
should be considered, Supreme Court says in 5-4 ruling
June 28, 2007
WASHINGTON - A divided Supreme Court on
Thursday blocked the execution of a Texas killer whose lawyers
argued that he should not be put to death because he is mentally
The court ruled 5-4 in the case of Scott
Louis Panetti, who shot his in-laws to death 15 years ago in front
of his wife and young daughter.
Lawyers for the convicted murderer say that
he suffers from a severe documented illness that is the source of
gross delusions. “This argument, we hold, should have been
considered,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority
Panetti should have been given the
opportunity to submit expert psychiatric evidence in state court
because “it is uncontested” that he made a substantial showing of
incompetency, Kennedy wrote.
Panetti’s lawyers wanted the court to
determine that people who cannot understand the connection between
their crime and punishment because of mental illness may not be
Dissent on technicality
In dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said that
Panetti had petitioned the federal courts twice in his case, but
that the law allows only one petition.
“The court bends over backwards to allow
Panetti” to bring his current claim, despite no evidence that his
condition has worsened, or even changed, since 1995, Thomas wrote.
One of Panetti’s lawyers, Scott Hampton of
Austin, Texas, said that “executing Scott Panetti would have been
a mindless, meaningless, miserable spectacle. What this decision
means is that you can bring in experts to try to determine a
Hampton said the number of people on Death
Row with the kind of mental illness that Panetti suffers from is
A former ranch hand and native of Hayward,
Wis., Panetti had a history of mental problems including
schizophrenia, recording 14 hospital stays over 11 years before
Siding with Kennedy in the majority were
Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and
Joining Thomas in dissent were Chief Justice
John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito.
Texas said the court should reject Panetti’s
appeal on procedural grounds. But it also argued that the court
should set a tougher standard for mental illness exceptions to
capital punishment. Only if a Death Row inmate “lacks the capacity
to recognize that his punishment both is the result of his being
convicted of capital murder and will cause his death” should his
execution be halted, the state said. Panetti is competent on that
basis, it said.
The killings took place in September 1992.
Found competent by four courts
A former ranch hand and native of Hayward,
Wis., Panetti had a history of mental problems before his
conviction, recording 14 hospital stays over 11 years.
Four courts have said he was competent when
he fired his trial lawyers. A jury and two courts rejected his
defense of not guilty by reason of insanity. He personally argued
that only an insane person could prove the insanity defense,
dressing in cowboy clothing and submitting an initial witness list
that included Jesus Christ and John F. Kennedy.
Then-Justice Lewis Powell said 20 years ago
that a person may not be put to death if he cannot perceive “the
connection between his crime and his punishment.”
The Eighth Amendment of the Constitution bars
“the execution of a person who is so lacking in rational
understanding that he cannot comprehend that he is being put to
death because of the crime he was convicted of committing,” they
said in court papers.
The case is Panetti v. Quarterman, 06-6407.