There is no question that Scott Panetti brutally shot his in-laws to death in 1992.
And there is no question that Panetti, now 56, was mentally ill at the time he committed the murders and remains mentally incompetent and in need of treatment today.
But somehow, questions still linger over whether or not Panetti — who has been on death row since his 1995 conviction and who is scheduled to die by lethal injection on Wednesday — should be executed for his crimes.
The clear answer to those questions is no.
Panetti’s tragic and sometimes bizarre case has been winding its way through state and federal courts for more than two decades. His tortured life of mental illness has gone on much longer.
In the years before the murders, Panetti was hospitalized or involuntarily committed more than a dozen times. He collected federal disability checks because he could not work.
Why his commitment was only temporary is one of many tragedies in Panetti’s twisted case. It was clear years before his crimes that his illness rendered him capable of such atrocities.
Despite a 14-year history of emotional and psychological disturbances that could fill volumes, including diagnoses of “fragmented personality, delusions, and hallucinations” as well as schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder and homicidal tendencies, he was found competent to stand trial.
He insisted on representing himself, calling as witnesses the pope and Jesus Christ in his defense. He blamed the murders on one of his alternate personalities — a man named “Sarge” — whom doctors had identified years prior.
His conviction and subsequent attempts to appeal his death sentence prompted a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2007 that changed the criteria under which states can execute inmates whose mental competency is in question.
Defendants, the court said, must have a “rational understanding” of the reason for their imminent execution and once an execution date is set, be permitted to litigate their competency in court.
The Supreme Court stopped short of overturning Panetti’s sentence, instead leaving that to the lower courts, which have thus far insisted that Panetti is competent enough to understand the reasons for his fate and his death sentence must stand.
It’s been seven years since Panetti’s last mental evaluation, but it seems obvious that his mental state has not improved, only worsened. His attorneys have said that he believes his execution is the result of his preaching the Gospel in prison.
One wonders what harm could come from the state granting the opportunity for doctors to reassess his mental state.
Still, on Tuesday the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on procedural grounds declined to halt his executionand refused to appoint mental health experts to review his case again.
On Wednesday, it ruled a second time, rejecting Panetti’s appeal for clemency, leaving his lawyers with few available legal options.
His attorneys have petitioned the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend him for clemency — one of the last avenues for relief.
Whether or not Texas carries out Panetti’s execution on Wednesday, there will have been fewer state executions in Texas this year than in almost two decades.
It’s clear the appetite for capital punishment is waning.
In his Wednesday dissent, Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Tom Price, a Dallas Republican who is not returning to the bench next year, wrote that he has “given a substantial amount of consideration to the propriety of the death penalty as a form of punishment for those who commit capital murder, and I now believe that it should be abolished.” His comments reflect the sentiment of a growing number of Texans.
Even those who support the death penalty should see that little good can come of executing a man so delusional he cannot truly appreciate his crime or understand its connection to his fate.
Panetti should remain imprisoned for life, separated from society, where he can receive treatment and not pose a threat to others.
But he should not be executed for his crimes.
If the courts will not stay his execution, Gov. Rick Perry should.