The Scott Panetti Case

On September 8, 1992, Scott Louis Panetti shaved his head, dressed in military fatigues, and drove to his in-laws' Fredericksburg, Texas home where his wife and daughter were staying.  After breaking into the home, he shot his wife's parents at close range.  Amanda and Joe Alvarado died at the scene.  He then took his wife and daughter hostage and forced them to come to his bunkhouse.  When police later surrounded the building, Panetti released both hostages unharmed.  He then changed into a suit and surrendered.  He would later say that his in-laws had forced one of his several personalities, "Sarge", to come out and kill them.  He also added that, due to divine intervention, his victims didn't suffer. 

Scott Panetti's psychosis apparently began when he was a teenager in his native state of Texas.  Diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, he was first hospitalized in 1981 and his bizarre behaviour and delusions would lead to multiple hospitalizations over the next eleven years.  In one psychotic episode in 1986, Panetti became convinced that the devil was taunting him and he attempted to slash the walls of his family home to exorcise the demonic influence.  He also buried his family's furniture believing that the "devil was in it" and nailed the house curtains shut for fear that the neighbours would film him.  In 1986 alone, he was hospitalized nine times for periods ranging from four to forty-four days. 

Panetti's case was complicated by his refusal to take psychiatric medication and frequent threats made against family members (especially his wife and her parents).  Between 1981 and 1992, he would be hospitalized eleven times (always involuntarily) with his last release being in August of 1992. Due to his drinking and abusive behaviour, Scott Panetti's wife left him and took her daughter to live with her parents, .  She also obtained a restraining order against her husband, not that this would prevent the murder of her parents.

As you might expect, the murders and the psychiatric issues involved triggered a media frenzy.  Two competency hearings were held in the Panetti case.   The first hearing, held in July 1994, ended in a mistrial when the jury failed to reach a verdict.  Prior to the second hearing, held in September of that same year, his lawyer reported that Panetti had been unable to instruct him in any useful way due to his delusional thinking.  Despite a psychiatric report presented by the prosecution confirming the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia, Scott Panetti was found fit to stand trial. 

And it was quite a trial...

While in the Bell County Jail waiting for his capital hearing to begin,  Panetti discontinued all psychiatric medication.  He stated that he no longer needed any medication since he was a "Gnostic Nazarene who had been spiritually healed".  He also accused his attorneys of conspiring against him with the police and the prosecutor.  When his September 1995 trial began, he waived all right to counsel and insisted on representing himself.  Despite objections from his family, defense counsel, and even the prosecuting attorney, his request was granted. 

By all accounts, Scott Panetti's defense was bizarre (to say the least).  He dressed in cowboy style during the course of the trial, complete with cowboy hat, bandanna, and cowboy style shirts.  The presentations that he gave in his defense were rambling and frequently incoherent.  He attempted to subpoena hundreds of witnesses, including Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy, Anne Bancroft, and a host of others.  Various observers to the trial  reported being baffled by the judge's willingness to let Panetti ramble on.  One attorney who had been called as a witness by Panetti later commented that "The courtroom had the atmosphere of a circus. The judge just seemed to let Scott run free with his irrational questions and courtroom antics".  

Largely due to his long and incoherent rambles, the jury sentenced Scott Panetti to death on September 22, 1995.  Members of the jury had been intimidated by Panetti's strange presentation and were frightened by the prospect of his eventual release.  Since being placed on death row, Scott Panetti has consistently refused to take psychiatric medication and his attorneys have been fighting his execution on the grounds of his mental illness.   Under the 1986 Ford versus Wainwright Supreme Court ruling, persons deemed unable to understand the reality or reason for their punishment can not be executed.  Despite psychiatric evidence establishing Panetti's mental illness, the Fifth Circuit U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the execution order on the grounds that he was sufficiently competent to recognize the purpose of his punishment.

In the spring of 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Scott Panetti's favour in a 5-4 decision.  The Supreme Court decision sent the case back to the Federal District Court for resolution.  An evidentiary hearing was conducted before Judge Sam Sparks on February 6 2008 to evaluate the defendant's mental capacity.  On March 26, Federal Judge Sparks ruled that Scott Panetti was competent to be executed.  In his ruling, the judge concluded that "Panetti was mentally ill when he committed his crime and continues to be mentally ill today. However, he has both a factual and rational understanding of his crime, his impending death, and the causal retributive connection between the two. Therefore, if any mentally ill person is competent to be executed for his crimes, this record establishes it is Scott Panetti."

Despite numerous appeals and petitions (including one filed by his ex-wife and the daughter of the victims), Scott Panetti remains on death row. No formal execution date has been set.  

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