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Texas Wants to Execute This Mentally Ill Man: Will SCOTUS Step In?

Scott Panetti

Scott Panetti

Ron Honberg of the National Association of Mental Illness begins his recent op-ed for the National Law Journal describing a situation so strange that one assumes it is fiction:

A person diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia is accused of murdering his in-laws. He insists on defending himself without counsel and wears a TV-Western cowboy costume while on trial for his life. He attempts to subpoena the Pope, John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ. He rambles incomprehensibly, scares the jurors by pointing an imaginary rifle at them, and he believes the judge is a devil worshiper.

Yet this case is all too real. The trial was allowed to go forward and Scott Panetti, the person with extreme mental illness described above, was sentenced to death by the State of Texas.

Years later, attorneys for Panetti argued that mental illness made him unfit for execution, taking his case all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court in Panetti v. Quarterman (2007). Panetti won his case, which was sent back to the lower courts for reconsideration.

One might think that winning at the Supreme Court might have been enough to save Panetti from death row, but Honberg says Panetti’s attorneys are now asking the Court to hear his case again.

As Honberg explains:

The Supreme Court explicitly recognized that the views of mental health experts would be critical in further proceedings in Panetti’s case. Yet, in spite of the court’s directive, the Fifth Circuit and the district court ignored the diagnostic features and clinical realities of [Panetti’s] long-standing psychotic disorder.

The whole op-ed is worth a read. By the end, one can’t help but wonder: How in the world can somebody so obviously mentally ill still be considered sane enough to be executed?

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Jose Cornejo

Jose Cornejo