Texas Execution Nears For Murderer Whose Competence Was Debated Next week, Texas is slated to execute Scott Panetti for murder. He has a long history of mental illness but was allowed to defend himself at trial, where he insisted he was a movie character.
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Texas Execution Nears For Murderer Whose Competence Was Debated

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Texas Execution Nears For Murderer Whose Competence Was Debated

Texas Execution Nears For Murderer Whose Competence Was Debated

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A week from today, Texas is scheduled to execute a man named Scott Panetti for murdering his in-laws in 1992. There's no doubt he committed the crime. There's also no doubt that Scott Panetti is mentally ill, but he was deemed fit to stand trial, and he was allowed to defend himself. He dressed in a cowboy costume in court, insisting he was a character from a John Wayne movie. Over the course of the last two decades and many appeals, his cases gained national attention as part of the debate about capital punishment and mental illness. NPR's Wade Goodwyn has our story.

WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Since the 1970s, Scott Panetti has had a long and extensively documented history of mental illness. He got his first diagnosis in 1978 while being treated for burns at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. Panetti had been electrocuted while working for the power company. Kathryn Kase is his death penalty lawyer.

KATHRYN KASE: The doctors thought he was acting oddly, and they called in a psychiatrist to evaluate him. And the psychiatrist realized that he was experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations, and at the age of 20, he diagnosed him with the beginnings of schizophrenia.

GOODWYN: For a while, Panetti was able to keep his life together with the help of medication. He worked, married, had children and did his best to live a normal life, but his mental illness got progressively worse.

KASE: One day, his wife came home, and she found him burying the furniture in the front yard. And of course, she knew he was mentally ill, but she was appalled by this. And as she approached him, he ran into the house and started nailing the curtains together, and when she questioned him, he told her that he needed to bury the furniture in order to get the devil out of it.

GOODWYN: The voices in Panetti's head grew worse. There was Sergeant Ranahan, who donned Army fatigues and made armed patrols of the backyard for enemies. There was Wounded Songbird, a thoughtful Native American warrior. Panetti would dress up in cowboy outfits and swagger around Fredericksburg, Texas, where they lived. Kase says, Panetti's paranoia about the devil got so bad that his wife had him committed to a mental hospital in Waco.

KASE: She committed him, and she told the doctors that now he had this delusion about the devil. And like many people with paranoid schizophrenia, he developed a very specific delusion, and this was all about religion.

GOODWYN: He was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and chronic schizophrenia. A Texas judge granted Panetti's wife a divorce, and she moved back to Wisconsin with the three children. After a couple years, Panetti began dating a new woman - a Fredericksburg waitress - got her pregnant and eventually married her. This would prove a disaster.

His new in-laws repeatedly reprimanded Panetti for his paranoid behavior. So his lawyer says that one night, Panetti dressed up as Sergeant Ranahan, shaved his head, painted his face camouflage and sawed off the barrel of his .30-06.

KASE: And his paranoia takes over, and he believes that they are filled with the devil. And he grabs his wife, he grabs his young child, and he goes to his in-laws, and he shot them.

GOODWYN: Three years later, in 1995, in the small Hill Country town of Kerrville, Texas, Panetti was found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to death. For many, the heinous crime had resulted in a just and inevitable verdict. Others believe Panetti's case has been a miscarriage of justice.

CHARLES EWING: I think it's a travesty. I really do. I don't believe he got a fair trial. I don't believe that any of the proceedings through which he went were fair.

GOODWYN: Charles Ewing, the author of "Insanity: Murder, Madness, And The Law," which has a full chapter on the Panetti case.

EWING: I don't believe that Panetti was competent to stand trial. He paraded about the courtroom dressed in a cowboy costume and acted in a menacing, threatening and incoherent manner.

GOODWYN: At the time of Panetti's trial, the legal standard was that if a defendant was ruled competent to stand trial then they were also competent to represent themselves in court, but the Panetti trial put that standard to the test. Off his medication, Panetti dressed in a purple cowboy costume, insisted he was the Ringo Kid from the movie "Stagecoach" and babbled around the courtroom incomprehensibly. He subpoenaed Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy and Pope John Paul II in his defense. Professor Ewing says, the judge also inexplicably allowed Panetti to approach the jury box. The jurors would lean away in their chairs. After the trial was over, a few of the jurors admitted Panetti scared them.

EWING: His demeanor was frightening to the jurors, and they saw him as a crazy man. Some of the jurors said that had he been represented by counsel, they doubted that he would've been sentenced to death.

GOODWYN: Panetti's lawyers appealed, arguing that the mentally ill man should never have been allowed to represent himself, but both the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the Federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Panetti had knowingly waived his right to counsel. The district attorney in the case, E. Bruce Curry, declined to comment, but Rusty Hubbarth, a Texas lawyer and vice president of Justice For All, a pro-death penalty organization, believes the appeals courts got it right.

RUSTY HUBBARTH: There isn't a question of guilt or innocence here. It's not as if he was convicted last week and is being executed two weeks from now. He has enjoyed due process.

GOODWYN: An execution date in 2004 was stayed after his lawyers argued Panetti didn't know why he was being put to death. His lawyers say, he has an ongoing delusion that he's being executed for preaching the gospel to death row inmates. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed, ruling that a defendant must have a rational understanding of the reasons for his or her imminent execution. But Texas insists Panetti understands well enough. And yesterday, in a five to four decision, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Panetti a stay of execution and refused to appoint mental health experts to his case.

Hubbarth endorses the state's position, arguing that being mentally ill does not excuse capital murder.

HUBBARTH: We've executed people in Texas before that have exhibited mental illness. Mental illness does not constitute a block for execution.

GOODWYN: Panetti's lawyers have not given up. The landmark case is being appealed again to the Federal District Court on the grounds that Scott Panetti should indeed have a right to a competency hearing, but Panetti's time is almost out. Without reprieve, he'll be executed next Wednesday. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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