Helen M Farrell M.D.

Frontpage Forensics

Execution Stayed in Texas for Mentally Ill Man

Is it constitutional to execute a psychotic death row inmate?

Posted Dec 05, 2014

The execution of an incompetent person has no deterrent effect on society and is simply a miserable spectacle.

This is one of many rationales behind the Federal Court of Appeals decision to order a stay of execution for Scott Panetti on Dec. 3, 2014. The order came within 12 hours of the death row inmate’s scheduled lethal injection in Texas.

Scott Panetti was a Navy veteran who received honorable discharge in the late 1970s. Around the same time he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent decades in-and-out of psychiatric facilities for the treatment of psychosis. In 1992, he Panetti reportedly shaved his head, dressed in military fatigues, armed himself with multiple guns and shot his in-laws at close range in front of his then-wife and daughter.

On trial for double homicide, Panetti chose to represent himself and plead not guilty. He showed up to court wearing a purple cowboy costume and tried to call hundreds of witnesses including the Pope, John F. Kennedy, and Jesus Christ. During the court proceedings he was allegedly confused, disorganized, and even fell asleep. Panetti was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Allegedly showing ongoing psychotic symptoms on death row, attorneys urged federal courts, including the Supreme Court, to intervene.

With the successful stay of execution, Panetti’s lawyers have an opportunity to argue that executing a mentally ill person is unconstitutional. And they will no doubt largely base their argument on the landmark court case of Ford v. Wainwright.

In this 1986 United States Supreme Court case, Alvin Ford was convicted of murder in Florida and was sentenced to die. His lawyers argued that he showed signs of psychosis and the United States Supreme Court agreed that the Eighth Amendment barred the execution of an insane person. Justice Powell suggested that there be a competency standard for execution with two prongs. Frist, the convicted must be aware of that an execution is happening. And secondly, they must know the reason they are being sentenced to death.

While Scott Panetti is reportedly aware that he has been sentenced to death for killing his in-laws, there are also reports that he believes his actions were part of spiritual warfare. His lawyers, therefore, contend that while he knows the facts, he does not have a rational understanding of them.

Competency to be executed standards has both judicial and moral significance. An incompetent person cannot give their attorney last minute information that might help with exoneration. Not to mention the fact that many people believe “madness” or insanity is punishment in and of itself and certainly an incompetent person would not be able to make peace with their God before death. It is estimated that between 10 percent and 15 percent of people on death row have some form of a mental illness.

Since retribution can’t be exacted from an incompetent person, the stay of execution for Panetti is a notable decision that will help set precedent for execution competency standards for the mentally ill.

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