An appeals court in New Orleans on Wednesday stayed the execution of a Texas man, in a case that has gained national attention as a test for issues surrounding the execution of the mentally ill.
The court, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, postponed the execution, saying that it needed time to consider the larger issues surrounding the case.
The man, Scott Panetti, 56, was scheduled to be executed Wednesday in the 1992 slaying of his wife’s parents with a deer rifle as his horrified wife and daughter looked on. Panetti represented himself at his subsequent trial, wearing a cowboy costume with a purple bandanna while trying to call more than 200 witnesses, including the pope, John F. Kennedy and Jesus.
Panetti’s lawyers contend that he has suffered from schizophrenia for more than three decades and on Monday, they urged federal courts to intervene on the grounds that putting a mentally ill person to death was unconstitutional and violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The case has drawn an outcry not only from death penalty opponents, but from others who say the execution of a mentally ill person who may not have been aware of his or her own actions crosses a legal threshold that is clearly in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
“Widespread and diverse voices agree that Mr. Panetti’s execution would cross a moral line and serve no retributive or deterrent value,” said Kathryn Kase, Panetti’s lead lawyer and executive director of the Texas Defender Service, which represents people facing the death penalty.
The state, however, contends in legal filings that conversations between Panetti and his parents, secretly taped by prison officials, “provide conclusive evidence that Panetti has a rational understanding of the relationship between his crime and his punishment” and that he “has been grossly exaggerating his symptoms while being observed.”
According to his lawyers, Panetti first received a diagnosis of a psychotic disorder in 1978, 14 years before killing his in-laws. He was hospitalized 13 times from 1978 to 1991, and in 1986 expressed “fears that the devil is after him,” according to a timeline by his lawyers.
His condition deteriorated further in the early 1990s, according to legal documents, when he failed to take prescribed antipsychotic medication and discontinued treatment at a Kerrville hospital. At one point, he brandished a cavalry sword, called himself “Sgt. Iron Horse” and asserted that residents of Fredericksburg, where he lived, were plotting against him.
His wife and 3-year-old daughter moved out, and afterward, Panetti armed himself with a sawed-off shotgun and a deer rifle, and went to his in-laws’ home, killing his wife’s parents, Joe and Amanda Alvarado. He then took his wife and daughter to a bunkhouse where he had been living. He released them unharmed in a standoff with the police, according to court documents, then changed into a suit and surrendered.