In a hearing last week in front of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, lawyers for Texas death row inmate Scott Panetti argued that his severe mental illness renders him without the mentally competency to be executed. They asked the court to send the case back to a lower federal court to decide whether Panetti could have federally appointed defense and further resources to argue his case against execution.
Panetti’s case has drawn national attention to the questions of mental illness and the death penalty. Originally convicted of murder in 1995, Panetti has been in a two decade-long battlewith the Texas Court system and U.S. Supreme Court regarding his mental health and whether he should be given a death penalty sentence. Prior to his conviction, Panetti had a long history of mental illness, including paranoid schizophrenia, delusions, hallucinations and manic depression. Despite this documented history of mental illness, the Texas court ruled him competent, not only to stand trial but also to represent himself.
Following numerous appeal filings, Panetti’s case has been between state and federal courts as his lawyers argue to save his life. In 2007, Panetti’s case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld that inmates needed to have a “rational understanding” of their punishment to be considered competent for execution. Each state, however, makes its own determination of what constitutes a “rational understanding.” In this case, Texas contended that Panetti was fully aware of why he was being punished.
Panetti’s execution was set for December 3, 2014 until the U.S. Fifth Court Circuit of Appeals issued another stay in response to an appellate claim that he was denied adequate legal counsel to stand trial. For the past several months, Panetti’s lawyers have argued that Panetti needs a mental health evaluation because he has not been evaluated since 2007 but does not have the funds to pay for it.
One of Panetti’s lawyers, Greg Wiercioch, rests on the fact that Panetti’s case needs to bypass the state level and return to a federal district court. In the hearing last week, Wiercioch asked the court to appoint counsel and funds for expert assistance to determine whether Panetti is competent enough to be executed.
Kathryn Kase, one of Panetti’s attorneys with the Texas Defender Service, stated last Tuesday:
“If Texas executes Scott Panetti, it will demonstrate how little it cares to protect those who are most seriously ill. He has been for 40 years. Texas has again and again sought to kill him, suggesting it does not care to recognize the mental illness that brought him to commit homicide, to death row, and now makes him incompetent. He lacks an understanding of why the state wants to kill him.”
As part of the hearing, the judges in the case “appeared frustrated with both sides for failing to answer the question of his competency.” The judges also questioned the state’s refusal to provide funds to an indigent inmate on death row who might be mentally ill. As of now, Panetti’s lawyers hope to file a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in a federal court in the coming weeks.
Eleni Angelides is a Political Science MA candidate at George Washington University. She is currently serving as a Communications and Marketing Intern with Equal Justice USA. Look for her Newsline stories in the weeks and months to come!
Photo Credit: Texas Defender Service