On Wednesday, Texas plans to administer a lethal injection to Scott Panetti, a man with severe mental illness who was convicted of murder while representing himself in court wearing a cowboy costume. If the state does so, a miserable spectacle of a trial will have led to one of the most outrageous executions of our time.
When Panetti went on trial in 1995 in Kerrville, Texas, he had already been hospitalized more than a dozen times for psychosis related to his schizophrenia. With his life in the balance, he was permitted by the court to argue his own case. He did so in a Tom Mix-style purple cowboy costume and a 10-gallon hat. Among the famous witnesses he tried to call to the stand: President Kennedy, Pope John Paul II and Jesus Christ.
After Panetti took the stand to testify, he spoke to himself in different voices and assumed the persona of “Sarge,” the alter ego he believed was responsible for killing Panetti's mother-in-law and father-in-law with a hunting rifle.
The result of Panetti's circus of a trial was a death sentence.
It should never have happened that way.
The court could have stepped in and insisted on representation by outside counsel. It failed to do so. The court also refused to accept Panetti's highly relevant medical records into evidence because he had scribbled all over them with cartoons and ruminations.
There are multiple legal safeguards that are meant to protect the inherent dignity and civil rights of Americans with mental illness when they come into the criminal justice system. Most people assume — especially those informed by portrayals in television, books and movies — that the United States doesn't execute people with severe mental illness. They wrongly presume that people with mental illness are protected by our laws.
Unfortunately, as Panetti's case illustrates, the safeguards can and do fail. We do execute people with severe mental illness. And now Panetti, 56, may be the next horrifying example of this failure.
Panetti has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, a serious mental illness characterized by hallucinations and delusions. As is common, his schizophrenia began to manifest in his late adolescence, when he began hearing voices.
Although he had been repeatedly hospitalized, Panetti was delusional and not receiving treatment when he shaved his head in 1992, dressed in Army fatigues and took the lives of his in-laws. The afternoon of the killings, he turned himself over to the police.
In the 1986 case Ford vs. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute people who are insane. Yet the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which rules on federal litigation from Texas and other Southern states, has never found any prisoner incompetent for execution due to mental illness.
In Panetti vs. Quarterman, the nation's highest court decided in 2007 that a prisoner who does not have a “rational understanding” of why he is being executed cannot be put to death for a crime. However, in determining that the execution could proceed, the 5th Circuit — despite compelling evidence to the contrary — ignored Panetti's persistent irrational beliefs about his impending execution.
And now Panetti — who has a fixed delusion that Satan, working through the state of Texas, is trying to kill him to stop him from preaching Christ's word to other inmates — is just days away from death by lethal injection, unless his execution is stopped.
Before Panetti went to court, before the crime occurred, he was extremely ill and greatly in need of help. Trapped in his belief that the devil was hunting him, Panetti washed the walls of his home and buried his furniture in the backyard. He was hospitalized shortly before the crime but was released without follow-up care, a common occurrence for people living with serious mental illness.
There's no question that Panetti must be incarcerated. However, his execution — particularly as the product of an unreliable legal process — would be immoral and serve no purpose, either in retribution or to prevent similar crimes.
Either the courts must step in to stay this travesty or Texas Gov. Rick Perry must commute Panetti's sentence to life. Otherwise, the state will kill an individual who is so ill and delusional that he cannot begin to comprehend his fate.
Ron Honberg is national director for policy and legal affairs at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.