First published in Voices of Liberty on 9/23/2015
September 23, 2015—Last year, Dr. Ron Paul, Richard Viguerie, evangelical leaders, and others created waves by calling on Texas officials to halt a severely mentally ill man’s execution. A temporary stay was issued in order to reexamine his case, but he is still at risk. His attorneys have a very simple request. They are asking the state to appoint counsel and provide only the necessary resources to investigate whether he is too incompetent to be executed, which, if true, would be a clear constitutional violation.
By all accounts, Scott Panetti is guilty of murder. On September 8, 1992, dressed in paramilitary attire, he forced his way into Joe and Amanda Alvarado’s home, who were his in-laws, and shot them at close range, killing them both. Then, Panetti proceeded to change into a dress suit and turn himself into the authorities. He was quickly and rightly charged with the Alvarado’s murder. However, the prosecution asserted that he was merely an addict who on his own cognizance committed a calculated and nefarious act, and he was promptly convicted and sentenced to death. If that was the extent of his case, then he would not have garnered international interest.
The state has contended that Scott Panetti isn’t incompetent nor is he legally insane, but there is abundant evidence undermining the state’s assertions. Panetti first exhibited signs of schizophrenia as early as 1978, roughly 14 years before his in-laws’ untimely deaths. In 1986, the federal government approved social security benefits for Panetti because he was considered mentally disabled. He was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and chronic schizophrenia, which are degenerative ailments that he has lived with for years. He was hospitalized more than twelve times in the decade preceding his crime, and at least once he was institutionalized against his will.
Panetti married Sonja Alvarado and fathered a daughter, but he was progressively worsening. Sonja eventually filed for divorce because Panetti’s drinking and paranoid delusions had become unmanageable. Indeed, his grip on reality was unraveling. He believed that their house was home to a demonic figure, and he even buried a piece of furniture because he was convinced that it was possessed. He nailed the curtains shut and attempted to clean the house’s walls because he was sure that blood was flowing down the sheet rock.
After Panetti surrendered, he decided to represent himself in court. Dressed in a purple cowboy outfit, he rambled for hours, incoherently speaking on topics not even tangentially related to his case. At one point, he even cross-examined himself while assuming an alter ego named “Sarge.” He attempted to subpoena the pope, John F. Kennedy, and Jesus to testify in his trial, along with roughly 100 others. The presiding judge could have ceased the spectacle and forced acting counsel upon Panetti, but he didn’t. Instead, he allowed the travesty to slowly unfold, and unsurprisingly, Panetti was found guilty and sentenced to death.
Panetti resides on Texas’ death row and has nearly been executed, but he has no understanding as to why he is there. He believes that the State of Texas is being directly influenced by Satan to prevent him from doing God’s work and evangelizing. He also claimed that the Bible’s power is no longer protecting his mind from voices he hears. This is the man that Texas has repeatedly said is competent and sane.
The state has even accused Panetti of faking his mental illness to avoid the death penalty. 37 years of documented schizophrenia certainly would be an elaborate ruse. But considering he was diagnosed and hospitalized more than a dozen times in the ten years prior to his in-laws’ murder, it’s safe to say that the state’s assertions about his mental state do not contain a kernel of truth.
The US Supreme Court unequivocally opposes executing the insane. In the 1986 case, Ford v. Wainwright, the court stated that offenders must be sane and understand why they are being sentenced to die. In 2002, the court also ruled in Atkins v. Virginia that it is impermissible to execute the mentally disabled.
With these precedents, why is Texas so enthusiastic about killing a person who is severely and unquestionably mentally ill? What does Texas seriously expect to gain?
Oral arguments will begin on Wednesday, September 23, and all that Panetti’s attorneys are requesting is a competency hearing, counsel, and the necessary resources for investigative and expert assistance to help evaluate his mental state. The courts have more than compelling reason to grant this straightforward request.