Federal Court Finds 'Psychotic' Texas Man Unfit For Execution

By Marco Poggio | September 28, 2023, 7:15 PM EDT ·

A federal judge has found that a Texas man with a long history of severe mental illness is unfit for execution under the Constitution, the latest episode in a long legal saga that included a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in the man's favor in 2007, his attorney told Law360 on Thursday.

U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman for the Western District of Texas said in an order entered Wednesday that Scott Panetti, who was sentenced to death for murdering his wife's parents in 1992, cannot be executed because he lacks the type of mental competence that justifies an execution under Supreme Court precedent.

"Panetti lacks a rational understanding of the connection between his offense and his sentence of death," the judge said. "His execution would therefore violate the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment."

Panetti, 65, narrowly avoided the death chamber twice, first in 2004 then in 2014, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit stayed his execution six hours before it was scheduled to be carried out.

Gregory W. Wiercioch, an attorney who has assisted Panetti since months before his first execution date, said in a statement Thursday that Judge Pitman "did the right thing" in finding his client not competent for execution.

"Judge Pitman's ruling prevents the state of Texas from exacting vengeance on a person who suffers from a pervasive, severe form of schizophrenia that causes him to inaccurately perceive the world around him," Wiercioch said. "The Eighth Amendment bars the execution of people who, like Mr. Panetti, are severely mentally ill and do not understand the reason for their punishment."

The state of Texas can appeal the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and the case could still end up to the Supreme Court.

"The decision today doesn't get rid of the death penalty. It just simply says Scott Panetti cannot be executed while he's incompetent," Wiercioch told Law360 during a phone call. "It's our position that Scott Panetti is never going to regain competency because his condition has steadily deteriorated over two decades."

Panetti was first diagnosed with depression and insomnia at age 18, when he was serving in the U.S. Navy. In the years that followed his honorable discharge in 1977, Panetti was diagnosed with increasingly severe mental illness. In the 1980s, he was diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia and substance abuse and hospitalized several times.

In September 1992, Panetti murdered his in-laws in front of his wife and his daughter after they had separated from him due to his violent and erratic behavior. He surrendered to police after taking his wife and daughter hostage.

After being indicted for murder, a jury found him competent to stand trial. During the proceedings, in which Panetti represented himself, his mental issues were "on full display," Judge Pitman said in his order.

Panetti wore a burgundy cowboy costume and rambled incessantly. He attempted to subpoena Jesus Christ, Pope John Paul II and John F. Kennedy as witnesses. And he blamed a fictitious character for the murders.

Nonetheless, the jury found Panetti guilty of capital murder and sentenced him to death. That marked the beginning of his long post-conviction path, in which he turned to both state and federal courts in order to prove his own insanity.

The Supreme Court ruled on Panetti's death penalty case in 2007. That ruling didn't spare him from death row, but it was a landmark decision because it established the standard that lower courts have to apply to determine a defendant's competency for execution.

Panetti argued, and a 5-4 majority of the justices agreed, that simple awareness of the circumstances that led to the death penalty alone isn't enough to establish that a defendant is fit for execution. A deep understanding of the connection between the crime committed and the punishment is required under the ruling.

Wiercioch said that because of his delusions and his psychosis, Panetti believed his death sentence was the product of a conspiracy orchestrated by the state of Texas in cahoots with evil powers that wanted to stop him from preaching his Christian faith and prevent him from exposing a pedophile ring in Fredericksburg, Texas.

"There is no cure for schizophrenia. His condition has steadily deteriorated over the last 20 years. And he is unlikely to get better," Wiercioch said.

At a hearing in October last year, three psychiatrists testified that Panetti's mental issues have continued to be severe and that he was not faking his illness. One of them, Bhushan Agharkar, said Panetti believes he is to be executed because of a vast conspiracy against him, not because of the murders he committed. Panetti's younger sister said on the stand that she did not believe Panetti understands that he is going to be executed.

At the same hearing, three correctional officers called by the state of Texas said they never referred Panetti for mental evaluations because he either appeared to behave normally or never attempted to hurt himself or others. A fourth government witness, Timothy Proctor, a forensic psychologist, found that Panetti was "genuinely mentally ill" but concluded that he had a rational understanding of why he's on death row.

Judge Pitman ultimately found that the evidence weighed in favor of Agharkar's opinion that Panetti lacked a rational understanding of the reason for his execution.

"Panetti is a deeply disturbed, severely mentally ill individual whose mental condition precludes him from accurately or rationally perceiving and interpreting the world around him. He has no capacity to understand or comprehend the state's rationale for his execution," the judge said in the order. "Therefore, the court finds that Panetti is not competent to be executed for his crimes."

--Editing by Stephen Berg.

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