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A Court Just Stopped Texas from Executing a Paranoid Schizophrenic

A late reprieve for the man who wore a purple cowboy suit and tried to call Jesus Christ to the stand when representing himself in court.
December 3, 2014, 9:45pm

Photo courtesy of ​Texas Defender Service

On Wednesday, less than eight hours before the scheduled lethal injection of Scott Panetti, a US federal appeals court ​halted the execution of the paranoid schizophrenic man, who his lawyers say is too mentally incompetent to be killed by the state.

I've been following this case closely, and I was pretty sure that the next time I wrote about Scott Panetti, he would be dead. After all, on Monday the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted 7-0 against granting clemency to Panetti, and in Texas, a ​governor can't grant clemency without a recommendation from the Board. So even if Governor Rick Perry had wanted to spare Panetti—and I'm pretty sure he didn't—the man's hands were tied.

But after denials from lower courts, and in fewer than 40 words, the Fifth Circuit Court ​blocked the execution.

"We STAY the execution pending further order of the court to allow us to fully consider the late arriving and complex legal questions at issue in this matter. An order setting a briefing schedule and oral argument will follow," reads the court order.

Panetti's lawyers maintain that their client, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia for the first time in 1978—and killed his in-laws in 1992—should not have been allowed to represent himself in his original trial. For starters, he was hospitalized over a dozen times over the 14 years leading up to his arrest. During his trial, which observers described as a circus and a farce, Panetti called on 200 witnesses and wore a purple cowboy suit. But Panetti's lawyers are focusing on his mental state right now, which seems to have deteriorated considerably. (He apparently believes his execution is the result of a conspiracy between Texas and the Devil to stop him from preaching the gospel.)

But the stay isn't about whether or not Panetti is competent—instead, it's about whether he has the right to lawyers with the tools to litigate his incompetence.

Panetti's attorneys are pro-bono. As his co-counsel Kathryn Kase told me last week, "Due process demands that he be given resources so that he can be effectively represented. And without an investigation and psychologists, Texas can't say that he's been given due process."

Panetti hasn't been evaluated in seven years—even though, in theory, he can't be executed unless he's known to be competent. His lawyers want to be officially appointed as his counsel so they can hire a forensic psychologist to evaluate their client. The legal team has also issued a stay request to the US Supreme Court, arguing that because of Panetti's mental illness, his execution would violate the Eighth Amendment's protection from cruel and unusual punishment.

Though the lower courts denied this stay, a dissenting judge on Texas's Court of Criminal Appeals not only agreed that the severely mentally ill should be categorically protected from execution, but that the capital punishment should be abolished. It is ​expected that the Supreme Court won't decide whether to hear the case until after the Fifth Circuit reconvenes and reaches a definitive conclusion of its own. We don't know when those hearings will begin or end.

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