Execution scheduled for Man Who Subpoenaed Jesus While Representing Himself Wearing a Purple Cowboy Suit
Regardless of how you feel about the death penalty, are you OK with executing the mentally ill? I am sure some peoples knee jerk reaction when someone is convicted of an atrocious crime is to say they must be euthanized like an animal, no matter what their mental faculties are.
Others, myself included, believe that if we are going to keep the ultimate punishment (Not saying I agree with it, I just accept that it will be around for the foreseeable future) we must be VERY judicious in how we administer that punishment. And, when dealing with someone that is mentally ill, we must be even more scrutinizing.
Here is a situation that may give you pause:
Four years before he murdered his in-laws in Texas, Scott Panetti buried some furniture in his yard. The devil, he claimed, was in it. After he was arrested and charged with the killings, Panetti, who has a history of severe mental illness, represented himself at his capital trial wearinga purple cowboy suit. He called himself “Sarge” and subpoenaed Jesus, during the court proceedings. The jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death.
His appeal eventually reaching the United States Supreme Court, which in 2007 ruled that the state of Texas hadn’t adequately evaluated whether Panetti’s mental condition allowed him to fully understand the nature of his punishment—which is required under the constitution in order to sentence someone to death. The court stayed the execution and sent the case back for further proceedings.
Seven years later, Panetti’s illness hasn’t gone away, but the Supreme Court has given Texas the green light to kill him. The court’s decision, announced on October 6 without comment, upheld a 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that Panetti was sane enough for execution. The appellate court’s decision, in turn, was based in part on the opinion of a Florida psychiatrist who has deemed at least three Florida death row inmates with long and well-documented histories of mental illness to be sane enough for the needle.
At the trial, serving as his own lawyer, Panetti rambled incoherently through his defense. Among the hundreds of people he sought to subpoena were not only the Messiah, but John F. Kennedy and the Pope as well. Two jurors later told one of Panetti’s lawyers that his behavior had so frightened them that they voted for death largely to make sure he’d never get out of prison. (Texas at that time did not offer the option of life without parole.)
Two months after his sentencing, Panetti tried to waive his right to a lawyer for the appeal—a move tantamount to suicide. But this time, a judge refused his request, ruling that he was not mentally competent to make that choice.
Panetti may have been too incompetent to ditch his lawyer, but in 2003 a Texas state court determined, without a hearing, that he was sane enough to kill. His lawyers appealed to the federal district court, and the case ultimately landed before the Supreme Court, where Texas Solicitor General (and now US Senator) Ted Cruz defended the state’s right to put Panetti down.
Panetti’s lawyers appealed, arguing that he still hadn’t received a fair hearing on his competency as the Supreme Court had ordered six years earlier. “Paradoxically,” they wrote, “Panetti must invoke the Supreme Court’s decision in his own case to vindicate his right—now a second time—to rudimentary due process in an execution competency proceeding.”
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Panetti anyway, quoting the Court’s mental competency evaluator in its August 2013 ruling—even though Waldman was the only expert who testified at the competency hearing that Panetti was not, in fact, sick:
The State’s chief expert—Dr. Waldman—doubted that Panetti suffered from any form of mental illness and was “emphatic in his opinion that Panetti has a rational understanding of the…connection between [his] crime and [his] execution.”
Last week, the United States Supreme Court agreed.
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Houston Criminal defense attorney Tristan LeGrande