A US federal appeals court has issued a stay of execution just hours before Scott Panetti, a severely mentally ill death row inmate, was due to die in Texas by lethal injection. Mr Panetti, 56, shot his mother- and father-in-law dead at their home in Fredericksburg, Texas in 1992, in front of his estranged wife and their three-year-old daughter.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans issued the stay less than eight hours before the execution, which had been scheduled for 6pm local time on Wednesday. The postponement gives his lawyers an opportunity to seek new tests for Mr Panetti’s mental competence, and time to argue that he is too mentally ill to qualify for the death penalty. Those who oppose capital punishment in the case have claimed that executing Mr Panetti would violate the US constitution, which prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishment.
Mr Panetti’s lawyers, Greg Wiercioch and Kathryn Kase, said they were grateful for the stay.
“We believe that today’s ruling is the first step in a process which will clearly demonstrate that Mr Panetti is too severely mentally ill to be executed,” they said. “When people who have severe mental illness enter our criminal justice system, the system has a moral obligation to respond appropriately to the limitations and deficits presented by mental illness.”
Mr Panetti was first diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic by army doctors in 1978. He was hospitalised more than a dozen times before 1992, when he donned a camouflage uniform, shaved his head and shot dead Joe and Amanda Alvarado, showering his wife Sonja and their child in blood.
At his 1995 trial, he represented himself wearing a purple cowboy outfit and attempted to call more than 200 witnesses, including JFK and Jesus Christ. He claimed he was ordered to carry out the killings by a voice in his head whom he called “Sarge”. Rather than compel him to hire a lawyer, the court allowed Mr Panetti to continue defending himself. On death row, he reportedly insists his execution was planned by Satan, to prevent him from preaching Christianity to other inmates.
It is seven years since Mr Panetti’s mental state was last evaluated. In 2007, the US Supreme Court considered his case, deciding that a prisoner who lacked “rational understanding” of why they were being executed should not be put to death. Yet the case was sent back to a lower federal court, which in 2013 concluded that he was competent and that his lethal injection could proceed.
His supporters argue that Mr Panetti’s sentence should be reduced to life in prison. They include not only his lawyers and liberal human rights groups, but also a coalition of conservatives such as the former libertarian presidential candidate and Texas congressman, Ron Paul. Texas is responsible for almost 40 per cent of executions carried out in the US since the reintroduction of the death penalty in 1977. The state has long claimed that Mr Panetti is exaggerating his condition.
Amnesty International USA researcher Rob Freer said today that the authorities had “stepped back from conducting a shameful state killing that has generated huge concern both inside and outside the USA”. He added: “Texas should now immediately set about dropping its pursuit of Scott Panetti’s execution.”
The Fifth Circuit Court, which has appellate jurisdiction over Texas, Mississippi and Lousiana, said it had issued the stay “to allow us to fully consider the late arriving and complex legal questions at issue in this matter”.
The court said it would announce a timetable for oral arguments shortly.
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