Texas Puts Execution Of Mentally Ill Man On Hold
MELISSA BLOCK: In Texas, the execution of a mentally ill man convicted of a double murder has been put on hold. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals wants more time to consider Scott Panetti's case and his chronic mental illness. Panetti has a 36-year history of schizophrenia. He was committed to mental institutions more than a dozen times before the murders. Still, at trial he was allowed to defend himself. His case and the subsequent appeals have gained international attention. NPR's Wade Goodwyn joins us to tell us more from Dallas. And Wade, Scott Panetti was just seven hours away from execution, then the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals stepped in. What more did the court say about its reasons for the stay?
WADE GOODWYN: Well, not a whole lot more than you said - it said that the case is complex, as it acknowledged in the ruling. And in the 20 years since Scott Panetti was convicted and sentenced to death, the laws have changed kind of as a consequence of Supreme Court rulings in the Panetti case itself and sometimes in reaction to Panetti's case. So the Fifth Circuit is saying hold your horses on the execution tonight. We want to hear the issues, so please prepare oral arguments. And to me, that seems to indicate that the court wants to hear whatever Panetti's lawyers want to argue.
BLOCK: Now, what's not in doubt here, Wade, is Scott Panetti's guilt for these two murders. Reminds us about the details of this case.
GOODWYN: No, there's no question about that. He killed his estranged wife's in-laws in front of his wife and young daughter - shot them to death with a 30-aught-six that he sawed off because, according to his family, he'd come to believe the in-laws were guided by the devil. Before he did this, Panetti had been committed to mental hospitals 14 times, but the illness was relentless. And one day his wife came home to find him burying the furniture in the yard, and she said, you know, Scott, what are you doing? And he said the devil had gotten into the furniture, and then he ran inside and began nailing the curtains closed to keep Satan out.
You know, what's important here is Panetti's long documented history of mental illness. It's what makes the case legally compelling. He's not some guy who killed someone and then tried to claim afterwards he was temporarily insane.
BLOCK: And that's the key legal issue that the appeals court is going to be considering - whether Scott Panetti's mental illness should stop him from being executed. How are those arguments likely to play out?
GOODWYN: Well, I mean now we're not talking about how Panetti was then, but how ill is he now, because in 2007 in the Panetti case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Texas couldn't execute Panetti if he didn't understand why he was being executed. His lawyers say he's had this ongoing delusion that he's being executed 'cause he's preaching the gospel to other death row inmates. But the state has responded - and the Texas courts have upheld them - that Panetti understands well enough, and therefore he should be put to death. So that's the biggest issue before the court. Should Panetti get a competency hearing 'cause he hasn't had one in seven years since the Supreme Court ruled in that case?
BLOCK: Finally, Wade, what has the reaction been to this decision today to postpone this execution?
GOODWYN: Oh, I think in Texas it's been one of relief, largely. The case was on Governor Rick Perry's desk, and there was a lot of pressure on Perry both to commute Panetti's sentence to life in prison or to go ahead and execute Panetti because he's guilty. And Perry would like to run for president again, so now it's not up to him to save or kill Panetti. He's been saved by the Fifth Circuit.
BLOCK: That's NPR's Wade Goodwyn. We were talking about the U.S. Court of Appeals order that halted the execution of Scott Panetti in Texas. Wade, thanks so much.
GOODWYN: It's my pleasure.
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