Ruling spares the life of mentally ill Texas murderer

Times Staff Writer

The Supreme Court ruled Thursday that Texas could not execute a severely mentally ill man because he could not comprehend why he was going to be put to death.

The 5 to 4 ruling, written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, spared the life of Scott Louis Panetti, 49, who murdered his former in-laws in 1992 after battling mental health problems for years.

Panetti has been on death row in Texas since 1995 and has been diagnosed as schizophrenic.

Both Panetti’s lawyers and attorneys for the state said he was mentally disturbed. The question was whether he was sufficiently mentally ill that his execution would violate the 8th Amendment’s bar against cruel and unusual punishment.


Panetti was hospitalized for mental illness 14 times in the decade before using a shotgun to kill his former in-laws in the Texas hill country town of Fredericksburg, as his estranged wife Sonja and her child watched.

During Panetti’s trial, he exhibited bizarre behavior, wearing a purple cowboy suit and 10-gallon hat and subpoenaing President Kennedy, Pope John Paul II and Jesus Christ as witnesses.

Panetti was ruled mentally competent to stand trial, mentally competent to represent himself and mentally competent to be executed. Before Thursday’s decision, four courts, including the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, rejected Panetti’s lawyers’ pleas to spare his life.

The Supreme Court sent the case back to a federal judge in Austin to reassess Panetti’s mental health in light of the decision issued Thursday. Ted Cruz, the Texas solicitor general, said he would continue to press for Panetti’s execution.

The case presented a particularly thorny question because evidence was introduced that Panetti was aware that he had killed Amanda and Joe Alvarado. But expert testimony was presented that Panetti, known as “the preacher” on Texas’ death row, believed he was going to be executed because Texas was conspiring with the devil to block him from preaching the Gospel to fellow inmates -- not because he murdered the Alvarados.

At an oral argument in April, Cruz asserted that Panetti was capable of understanding the connection between his crime and his punishment and was exaggerating his delusions.

But defense lawyer Gregory Wiercioch, of the Texas Defender Service, told the justices that Panetti did not rationally understand why he was to be executed. Consequently, Wiercioch said, killing Panetti would serve no legitimate retributive purpose.

That view eventually prevailed. The high court majority ruled that the 5th Circuit’s standard for determining incompetence was too restrictive to provide Panetti the protections he was entitled to under the 8th Amendment.


Writing for the majority, Kennedy rejected the position taken by Cruz and the 5th Circuit, that Panetti’s delusions were irrelevant as long as he was aware that Texas had made a link between his crime and the punishment.

“This test ignores the possibility that even if such awareness exists, gross delusions stemming from a severe mental disorder may put that awareness in a context so far removed from reality that the punishment can serve no purpose,” Kennedy wrote.

Kennedy also found that execution would be inconsistent with a 1986 Supreme Court decision, Ford vs. Wainwright, which ruled that a person may not be put to death if he cannot perceive “the connection between his crime and his punishment.”

Kennedy was joined by the court’s moderate and liberal justices -- John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.


Dissenting was Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Thomas’ opinion illustrated the deep divide on the high court in death penalty cases. He said that the court should not even have considered the case because Panetti did not meet the standards set by a 1996 law to have his petition considered.

“Ignoring this clear statutory mandate, the court bends over backward to allow Panetti to bring” his mental illness claim “despite no evidence that his condition has worsened -- or even changed -- since 1995. Along the way, the court improperly refuses to defer” to a state court finding that Panetti was competent to be executed “even though Panetti had the opportunity to submit evidence and to respond to” a courtappointed experts’ report on his condition.

Kennedy countered that the procedures the state court provided to Panetti “were so deficient that they cannot be reconciled with any reasonable interpretation of the Ford rule.”


Still, Kennedy acknowledged that “a concept like rational understanding is difficult to define” and made it clear that not all condemned inmates with irrational thoughts would become the beneficiaries of the ruling.

“Someone who is condemned to death for an atrocious murder may be so callous as to be unrepentant; so self-centered and devoid of compassion as to lack all sense of guilt; so adept in transferring blame to others as to be considered ... to be out of touch with reality,” Kennedy wrote describing the types of individuals who could not utilize the decision.

The Supreme Court decision was hailed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which submitted a friend-of-the-court brief, along with the American Psychological Assn. and the American Psychiatric Assn.

“For once, law has caught up with medical science,” said Ronald S. Honberg, NAMI’s director of policy and legal affairs.


“The circumstances of this case are tragic, and no one minimizes the gravity of the crime or the suffering of the victims. However, execution of someone who is profoundly ill would only compound the original tragedy and represent a profound injustice for us all.”