SCOTT PANETTI: On death row in Texas since 1995 for murdering his wife’s parents, he has an extensive history of mental illness that many observers contend would render his execution unconstitutional. (Brett Coomer/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/Newscom)
A person diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia is accused of murdering his in-laws. He insists on defending himself without counsel and wears a TV-Western cowboy costume while on trial for his life. He attempts to subpoena the Pope, John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ. He rambles incomprehensibly, scares the jurors by pointing an imaginary rifle at them, and he believes the judge is a devil worshiper.
This isn’t an episode of “Law and Order.” It actually happened, and with this case, the U.S. Supreme Court has the opportunity to clarify the standard for protecting incompetent prisoners from execution.
Scott Panetti has been diagnosed with severe mental illness for more than 30 years. His mental illness manifested itself at least a decade before the murder of his wife’s parents, a crime for which he was convicted and sentenced to death in Texas. It is uncontested that Panetti’s delusions center on his belief that his execution is being orchestrated by Satan, working through Texas officials, to stop him from saving the souls of the condemned.
Seven years ago, in Panetti v. Quarter­man, the Supreme Court held that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit’s standard for assessing competency for execution was unconstitutional. When directed to reconsider Panetti’s case, the Fifth Circuit again held that he was competent for execution — despite the district court’s findings that he has severe mental illness and suffers from paranoid delusions about the reasons for his execution. Panetti’s petition for a writ of certiorari is now pending at the Supreme Court.
The principle that it is unconstitutional to execute individuals who are insane is ingrained in American law. In Ford v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court in 1986 observed: “Whether its aim be to protect the condemned from fear and pain without comfort of understanding, or to protect the dignity of society itself from the barbarity of exacting mindless vengeance, the restriction [against executing the insane] finds enforcement in the Eighth Amendment.”
On remand from the 2007 Panetti ruling, the federal courts in Texas failed to recognize that Panetti’s severe delusions consistently distort his ability to think rationally. He isn’t sane now and hasn’t been for a very long time. His bizarre behavior began when he was a teenager. He was hospitalized nearly a dozen times in the decade before the crime. At one point, Panetti experienced a psychotic breakdown during which he tried to wash the devil from the walls of his home and buried his furniture in the backyard, believing that the devil had possessed it.
Panetti’s condition has only deteriorated on death row. He refuses any treatment for mental illness because he believes that angels came to his cell and cured him. All but one of nine experts who have evaluated Panetti’s competence for execution agree that he lives with a severe mental illness.
The Supreme Court explicitly recognized that the views of mental health experts would be critical in further proceedings in Panetti’s case. Yet, in spite of the court’s directive, the Fifth Circuit and the district court ignored the diagnostic features and clinical realities of his long-standing psychotic disorder.
Instead, the lower courts cherry-picked fragments of Panetti’s thinking that appeared tethered to reality to conclude he was competent for execution. The Fifth Circuit’s standard for competency trivializes severe mental illness and ultimately deems psychotic delusions irrelevant by disregarding their iron-grip persistence on Panetti’s thinking.
Isolated remarks, however logical and cognitively aware they might seem in a vacuum, cannot dislodge Panetti’s entrenched delusional belief system. As Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion in Panetti, explained: “Gross delusions stemming from a severe mental disorder may put an awareness of a link between a crime and its punishment in a context so far removed from reality that the punishment can serve no proper purpose.”
The court should resolve the difficult and complex question it left open in Panetti v. Quarterman and announce a precise standard for assessing a prisoner’s competency for execution. The Fifth Circuit’s standard fails to identify the people the court in Ford and Panetti intended to protect: prisoners who may possess some cognitive understanding of the reasons for their execution, but who also exhibit delusional thinking that irredeemably distorts the link between their wrongdoing and the punishment they are about to suffer.
Ultimately, Texas should not be permitted to execute Scott Panetti without answering the central question the lower courts have sidestepped: How can a person with a severe mental illness who genuinely believes that Satan, conspiring with the state government, is seeking to execute him for preaching the Gospel nonetheless possess a rational understanding of the link between his crime and his punishment?
Panetti’s trial was an abomination. His execution, if the U.S. Supreme Court does not stop it, would be a miserable spectacle.