5th Circuit Court of Appeals justly stops execution

In the interest of justice, and amid a national outcry from divergent legal, political and religious voices, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals halted the execution of a mentally ill man Wednesday, hours before Texas was scheduled to put him to death.

Scott Panetti, convicted of murdering his estranged wife’s parents in 1992, has a 30-year history of severe mental illness, a condition his lawyers argued has gotten worse in recent years and should exempt him from execution.

In a two-sentence statement, a three-judge panel of the appeals court said, “We STAY the execution pending further order of the court to allow us to fully consider the late arriving and complex legal questions at issue in this matter. An order setting a briefing schedule and oral argument will follow.”

The case was stayed originally in 2004, but Texas continued to contest Panetti’s lawyers’ claims of his mental incompetence, and the 5th Circuit concluded last year that he was indeed competent to receive the state’s ultimate punishment.

When a state district judge in October set the execution date for Dec. 3 — which the condemned man’s attorneys say they learned two weeks later from a newspaper account — there was a mad rush of court filings, from the district level all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The lawyers also appealed to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles and to Gov. Rick Perry.

Several organizations and individuals, including more than 50 evangelical leaders, the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops and the American Bar Association, opposed the execution and supported the petition for clemency.

In a Nov. 6 letter, the bar association asked Perry to delay Panetti’s execution “not as a determination of his guilt or innocence or as a reflection of your position on the death penalty, but simply to allow for a substantive and complete consideration of his mental health status and to create a judicial record of whether he has a mental disorder that impairs his ability to have a rational understanding of the reasons for his punishment.”

The Supreme Court, in a 2007 ruling in Panetti’s case, said criminal defendants cannot be put to death if they do not understand the reason for their execution.

Since Panetti has not had a mental evaluation in seven years, his attorneys asked that his execution date be put off to allow them the opportunity to have him examined by experts and to litigate his competency.

Last week, the state’s highest criminal court voted 6-3 to deny a stay of execution for Panetti. Still, Republican Judge Tom Price of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals issued a scathing dissent saying he no longer agrees with the death penalty and particularly opposing it in Panetti’s case.

“It is inconceivable to me how the execution of a severely mentally ill person such as [Panetti] would measurably advance the retribution and deterrence purposes purportedly served by the death penalty,” Price wrote.

He continued, “I can imagine no rational reason for carving a line between the prohibition on the execution of a mentally retarded person or an insane person while permitting the execution of severely mentally ill person. At minimum, therefore, I would hold that the execution of a severely mentally ill person violates the Eighth Amendment of the federal Constitution.”

The 5th Circuit ruling shows that the appeals panel judges have a preference for caution. There is, after all, no room for error and no harm in thoroughly examining the attorneys’ arguments.

The Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops was quick to applaud, saying in a statement, “The Texas Bishops have long taught about the immorality of the death penalty and were particularly vocal seeking mercy for Panetti, who has been diagnosed by several doctors as suffering from severe mental illness.”

Texas, with its “tough-on-crime” reputation and its standing as the national leader in executions, is not likely to give up trying to carry out the death sentence for Panetti.

For now, the right thing has been done. Attorneys have another opportunity to argue on his behalf, perhaps to have experts evaluate his mental condition.

Along the way, the 5th Circuit or the Supreme Court should further define mental competence and the parameters under which the state can execute a mentally impaired person and still adhere to the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.