On Sept. 8, 1992, Texas resident Scott Panetti woke up around dawn, shaved his head and drove to his wife’s parents’ house. In front of his wife and 3-year-old daughter, he shot and killed his in-laws. During a confrontation with police, he released his wife and daughter unharmed, then changed into a suit, went to the nearest police station and turned himself in.
Panetti has suffered from paranoid schizophrenia for more than three decades, his lawyers told the U.S. Supreme Court. He was scheduled for execution by lethal injection on Wednesday.
Panetti’s lawyers successfully fought off the death penalty charge, which was stayed by a federal appeals court in New Orleans on Wednesday. While a stay does not necessarily mean that Panetti will not wind up being executed, it does give federal courts, including the Supreme Court, more time to consider the larger issues surrounding the case – such as the execution of a severely mentally ill man.
The case has gotten national attention from opponents of the death penalty and others, who say that Panetti clearly was not aware of what he was doing when he killed his in-laws. Protestors of the original court decision say that it violates the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment.
In 2007, Panetti’s lawyers argued in front of the Supreme Court that he failed to meet the standard of competence set by the precedent-setting case Ford v. Wainwright in 1986, which established that “the Eighth Amendment forbids the execution only of those who are unaware of the punishment they are about to suffer and why they are to suffer it.”
However, under Texas law, a person is considered competent to stand trial if they present “sufficient ability to consult with his or her lawyer with a reasonable degree or rational understanding” and “a rational, as well as a factual, understanding of the proceedings against him or her.” Panetti’s lawyers argued that Panetti did not have a rational understanding. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz from Texas said a factual understanding was enough.
Michael Perlin, a lawyer and professor of law at New York Law School, spoke out about the Panetti decision before the stay was granted Wednesday.
“The Panetti case is as shameful a stain on our legal system as I have observed in my 43-plus years as a lawyer,” he told Vice. “There is no question as to the profundity of his mental illness and similarly no question that his execution mocks the notion that due process is truly available to all in the criminal justice system.”
Texas is not new to capital punishment — the state has executed 518 inmates since 1976, by far the most of any state. The next-highest number belongs to Oklahoma, which has performed 111 executions. There are currently 18 states that have abolished capital punishment, including Massachusetts. Capital punishment is controversial in general, but it is especially so in cases such as Panetti’s, where the convicted is clearly severely mentally ill. It is estimated that at any given time, 10 to 15 percent of convicts on death row are mentally ill.
In cases of mentally ill death row inmates, it is argued that they didn’t know what they were doing at the time of the crime. And in instances of severe psychosis like Panetti, it’s fairly clear that there is an extreme lack of competence. He understands what he did in murdering his ex-wife’s parents, but it was his intentions that are not understandable to the mentally competent.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott claims that Panetti has been secretly filmed while talking to his parents about his crime and shows “a rational understanding of the relationship between his crime and his punishment.” But there is a difference between lucidity and logic — he may be able to talk to others about the crime, but likely does not understand the immensity of what he’s saying.
The relationship between incarceration and mental illness is a tale as old as time. If people were found to be mentally ill, they were placed in jail instead of in treatment. Of course, however, this was at a time before doctors knew what to do in cases of mental illness. So then why, when we have modern medicine and the ability to at least partially rehabilitate people with even the most severe of psychoses, is giving a mentally incompetent person the death penalty an option.
Regardless of one’s views on the death penalty, treating this man as if he is a rational thinker is the cruel and unusual punishment the Eighth Amendment warns against. Panetti needs to be put somewhere where there are people who know how to deal with him. He should be treated, not senselessly put to death.