Is Scott Panetti's Severe Mental Illness Enough to Stop his Execution?

Earlier this month, the State of Texas was scheduled to execute Scott Panetti. Panetti was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death in 1994 for the murders of his mother and father in-law, Amanda and Joe Alvarado. On September 8, 1992, Panetti went to the Alvarado's home in Fredericksburg where he shot and killed them with a sawed-off rifle. The murder took place in front of his wife and their 3-year-old daughter.

However, the State came under criticism over Panetti's execution because of a growing consensus among attorneys and observers that Panetti himself is severely mentally ill. The case raises some important issues about the death penalty, even in the state that leads the nation in executions. Historically, supporters of the death penalty have argued that it promotes two important goals of the legal system, namely retribution and deterrence. But what if an individual's mental disability renders them incapable of understanding why they are being executed?

The U.S. Supreme Court confronted the question of whether it is inhumane to execute someone who is insane in a 1986 case. In Ford v. Wainwright, a man in Florida was sentenced to death for murder and showed no signs of mental deficiency at the trial and sentencing phases. The man's condition worsened while he awaited execution, however, which prompted a re-evaluation of his mental condition to determine whether he was competent to be executed. The Court found that executing the insane was indeed a "savage and inhumane" act that violated the eighth amendment's prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. In a concurring opinion, one of the justices put forward the idea that the eighth amendment also forbids executing those persons who are "unaware of the punishment they are about to suffer and why they are to suffer it."

The Court confronted a very similar case again in 2002. In Atkins v. Virginia a man was sentenced to death for capital murder even after a forensic psychologist had testified that he was mentally retarded. The man's attorneys argued on several appeals to Virginia's State Supreme Court that he could not be put to death due to his mental deficiency, but the State continued to hold the position that this should not prevent him from being executed. The question that the Supreme Court had to decide in this case was slightly different from the one asked in Ford v. Wainwright. While that case dealt with a man whose condition had worsened over time, and was ultimately found to be insane, this case involved a man whom a forensic expert found was mentally retarded at the very beginning of his case. Again, the Court found that executing a person who has been found to be mentally retarded amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

The Court's reasoning stated that the two main arguments used to support the death penalty—retribution and deterrence—could not apply to offenders who are mentally retarded. Mentally retarded offenders have a diminished level of culpability such that they cannot be held fully responsible for their actions. As such, sentencing mentally retarded offenders to death would do little or nothing to advance the goals that its supporters claim the death penalty promotes.

It should be noted that there is a distinction to be made between an offender who is insane versus an offender who is mentally retarded. The Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, for example, distinguishes mental illness from mental retardation with separate references in the State's Health and Safety Code. The Code defines mental illness as an "illness, disease, or condition...that substantially impairs a person's thought, perception of reality, emotional process, or judgment; or grossly impairs behavior as demonstrated by recent disturbed behavior." Compare this to the definition of mental retardation or "intellectual disability," which it defines as a "significantly subaverage general intellectual functioning that is concurrent with deficits in adaptive behavior [that] originates during the developmental period."

In Scott Panetti's case, the question has never been whether to classify his condition as a mental illness (insanity) or mental retardation. Rather, the controversy surrounding his case seems to be about whether Panetti's condition would fall under the State's definition of a mental illness (in his case "severe" mental illness). Many of his advocates argue that he is an insane person who has shown a pattern of "disturbed behavior." Panetti was diagnosed with schizophrenia by a military hospital in 1978. He was hospitalized at least 14 times for treatment in the decade leading up to the Alvarado murders. At his trial, he represented himself and dressed as a cowboy while attempting to subpoena Jesus and John F. Kennedy as witnesses. He often spoke in the third-person during the trial and referred to himself as Sgt. Ranahan Ironhorse.

Panetti has claimed that Satan is trying to keep him from preaching the Gospel by acting through the State of Texas to put him to death. So, given Panetti's outlandish and disturbing behavior from the time before the Alvarado murders to now, why are there still questions about whether he is fit for execution? First, his mental state has not been evaluated in seven years. It was for this reason that his attorneys filed a motion to modify the execution date to re-assess his competency to be executed. Their belief seems to be that Panetti's mental state has significantly deteriorated over time. Second, there is also a group that believes that Panetti is not as mentally ill as he appears to be. This group includes the State of Texas and Governor Greg Abbot. They argue that Panetti is exaggerating his condition and his outlandish behaviors are mostly contrived.

Seven hours before he was set to be executed, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals postponed the procedure to give doctors more time to evaluate Panetti's mental state and to reconsider the whether he is fit for execution. The key legal question will be whether Panetti's mental state allows him to grasp the meaning of his punishment, and thus whether executing him will serve the goals of deterrence and retribution. The outcome of his case will be a significant statement about the state of the death penalty in Texas and about the treatment of individuals with severe mental illnesses.

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