Opinion: Is Scott Panetti sane enough to be executed? The devil is in the details

The state of Texas wants to execute convicted murderer Scott Panetti, who believes the state is just a pawn in an epic battle between Satan and God, with his life in the balance. But Texas doesn't think Panetti is insane.
(Pat Sullivan / Associated Press)

There is no doubt that Scott Panetti murdered his mother-in-law and father-in-law in 1992, then took his estranged wife and daughter hostage before police talked him into surrendering. There’s also no doubt that Panetti is mentally ill (among other delusions, he thinks he’s in the center of a battle between God and Satan).

But is Panetti too mentally ill to understand why the state of Texas wants to execute him? Texas says no, his lawyers and a raft of psychiatrists say yes, and the arbiter could well be the Supreme Court, which sometime in the next few days will announce whether it has granted certiorari for the second time in an appeal in the case.

As The Times’ editorial board has written, and I’ve argued here on the blog, the death penalty should be abolished. Beyond its inherent immorality, the death penalty is inconsistently applied, atrociously prone to error and manipulation, and inhumane even when the executioners manage to get it right. Yes, murderers act inhumanely, too, but that is not cause for a state to execute its own citizens. Especially those who are unable to understand what is happening, be it from developmental disabilities or mental illness.


That’s a broad principle. Now we have an added layer of absurdity. In Panetti’s case, according to the petition for certiorari (it’s been a long meandering legal trail), there is no dispute that he killed Joe and Amanda Alvarado, and there is no dispute that he had suffered from severe mental illness for years beforehand. In 1986, while married to his first wife, Panetti became convinced that someone was watching him from a creek behind their house, so he sat on the porch for hours keeping guard. Separately, he buried valuables and stacked furniture in the yard, then hosed it down. He held a “devil’s birthday” ceremony to rid the house of evil.

The incidents form a long list of bizarre and occasionally dangerous behavior: Panetti was institutionalized two years before the murders after he waved a sword and threatened to kill his wife, baby and father-in-law. Then in 1992, he committed murder.

Despite his mental illness – schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder – Panetti was found competent to stand trial after court proceedings for which he had been medicated. And since he was competent to stand trial, a judge ruled he was competent to represent himself in a case in which Panetti - who had stopped taking his medications - pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. He dressed up in an old Tom Mix-style cowboy suit for his court appearances, asked bizarre questions and made rambling statements. He sought to subpoena Jesus Christ, the pope and some 200 others. When he took the stand in his own defense, he began talking as another person named Sarge and mimicked firing a rifle at the jury. The results, observers said, was a disastrous trial at the end of which Panetti was convicted and sentenced to death.

So does Panetti know why he will be executed? In interviews with the state’s psychiatrists, Panetti says yes, he killed his in-laws and that the state of Texas wants to execute him for that. But he also said God had forgiven him so there was no need to talk about that any more, that God assured him he will live to be an old preacher, and that the state of Texas is actually being used as a pawn by Satan (the plot also involves major corporations and the Bush family) to prevent him from preaching the Gospel on death row, as God wants him to do.

Texas argues that the first part of that answer is sufficient to determine that Panetti knows the execution stems from the murder convictions. The other details – such as his belief that Texas is just a tool in a Satanic battle – don’t come into play. Panetti’s lawyers – and the psychiatrists who testified on his behalf – argue that mental incompetence does not mean a lack of cognitive ability. Understanding the cause and effect between the murder and the execution does not mean he is sane, especially when he sees the crime through a delusional prism.

Which leaves us at this bizarre juncture: Is Panetti just sane enough to be executed?


The Supreme Court has ruled in the past that someone who does not understand the connection between the crime and the punishment cannot be executed under the 8th Amendment, but it hasn’t defined where the line is drawn, preferring to let the lower courts work that out through expert testimony and a recognition of the best standards in mental health.

In Panetti, the Supreme Court already ruled once that the lower courts had used a too-restrictive test to determine Panetti’s competency for execution, and sent the case back for reconsideration. The district court held more hearings and again concluded Panetti was sane, based in part on transcripts of surreptitiously taped conversations between Panetti and his parents in which the state argued he didn’t seem mentally ill (an odd conclusion to draw; he talked of God saving him from Satan-controlled inmates who tried to poison him, among other delusions).

Now the Supreme Court is being asked once more to overrule the lower courts’ decisions because they still used too narrow a definition and ignored clear evidence of severe mental illness. The condemned man believes that his executioner will not be the state of Texas under the banner of law, but agents of Satan. It’s hard to see how that passes an objective review of whether Panetti has a proper understanding that his crime leads to his punishment.

In taking the case, the Supreme Court will get to provide lower courts a better focused – and more sane – guideline, and keep this already reprehensible practice of state executions from wobbling further off into absurdity.

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.