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What if killer can't grasp meaning of execution?
U.S. high court asked to define insanity in case of Texas man
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — In the decade before he shot his in-laws dead in the Texas Hill Country, Scott Panetti was hospitalized 14 times for schizophrenia and psychotic delusions. He heard voices and fought with various personalities in his fractured mind. He once planted his furniture in the ground and watered it, believing it to be possessed.
Yet a Gillespie County jury deemed him fit to stand trial for capital murder in the 1992 slayings, and a judge allowed him to represent himself despite objections from even the prosecutor. Dressed in a purple cowboy outfit with a hat dangling from a string around his neck, Panetti flipped a coin to choose his jurors, ranted incomprehensibly and tried to subpoena everyone from President Kennedy to Jesus Christ.
The jury rejected his insanity defense and sentenced him to death.
Every mental health expert to evaluate Panetti agrees he is mentally ill. But on Wednesday, his lawyer, Keith Hampton of Austin, will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to answer a more difficult question: Is Panetti now so insane that he should be spared execution because he cannot grasp the fact that his punishment is the result of his crime?
Because, while Panetti, 49, understands that his estranged wife's parents — Amanda and Joe Alvarado, of Fredericksburg — were killed and that the state says he is to be executed for that crime, he doesn't believe it. Panetti, known as the "preacher" of Texas' death row, insists the real reason he is to be put to death is that the state, in league with the devil, is trying to silence him from delivering the Gospel to fellow inmates.
In recent years, the high court has banned executions of the mentally retarded and those who were under 18 at the time of their crimes. But, unlike those cases, Panetti's is not expected to place the punishment off-limits for all inmates suffering mental illness.
Panetti's lawyer is asking the high court only to clarify a 1986 ruling that prohibited executions of the insane because it would violate the 8th Amendment's ban against "cruel and unusual punishment." But, until now, the court has declined to define what it means to be insane.
It was left to the states to determine just how condemned killers should be evaluated for mental competency.
There is no consensus.
Texas and some other states say it's OK to execute mentally ill inmates so long as they are aware that the execution is the result of being convicted of capital murder and that it actually will cause their death. Other states say that's not enough. They require that an inmate must "rationally understand" that he is to be executed and why.
"There should be a meaningful connection between crime and punishment," said Andrea Keilen, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, which is helping represent Panetti. "It doesn't make any sense to execute someone who doesn't understand why they are being executed. It's not fitting for a civilized society to impose a punishment that way."
The two sidesTexas Solicitor General Ted Cruz, who will argue the state's side of the case, contends Panetti is capable of understanding why he is to be executed and that alone should be the test for competency. Otherwise, mentally ill inmates facing execution could avoid their punishment by faking or exaggerating their illness or by simply refusing, as Panetti does, to take the anti-psychotic medication that could help keep them sane.
(The Texas prison system does not forcibly medicate mentally ill inmates unless they pose a threat to other inmates or staff. Panetti does not. He refuses medication because he believes God has cured him.)
"There is no dispute Panetti suffers some degree of mental illness and has for a long time," Cruz said. "But, at the same time, six professional psychiatrists concluded he is exaggerating his symptoms, deliberately acting bizarre to prove he's insane."
Two juries and several lower court judges have considered Panetti's evidence and rejected it, Cruz said.
"Ultimately, resolving those factual questions is a matter for the jury, not an appellate court," he said.
Death penalty opponents' real motive in this case, Cruz said, is "not simply avoiding the inhumanity of executing a person who is truly insane but rather removing from death row as large a class of capital convicts as reasonably possible."
Dr. Seth Silverman, a Houston psychiatrist who has examined numerous mentally ill death row inmates, including Panetti, disagreed.
Even if Panetti wins his case, he said, most mentally ill inmates still would be considered competent to be executed. Panetti is the rare example, Silverman said, the one so delusional that he cannot possibly comprehend his situation.
Silverman said he and other psychiatrists are convinced Panetti's symptoms are real. His view of the murders and the reason he thinks he faces execution have remained consistent since his conviction, Silverman said, and the delusions he suffers now are essentially the same as those he has suffered for decades.
Silverman said that while Panetti is aware his in-laws were killed while his estranged wife and their 3-year-old daughter watched, he believes an alternate personality named "Sarge Ironhorse" killed them. He also does not comprehend that execution would result in his death because he believes he is immortal, Silverman said.
Similar cases in the pastOther recent Texas inmates with severe mental illness already have been executed.
Kelsey Patterson was put to death in 2004 despite a rare 5-1 recommendation by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles that his life be spared because of his severe schizophrenia. Gov. Rick Perry rejected the recommendation.
The effort to have a court declare him incompetent was hampered by Patterson's refusal to cooperate, just as Panetti refused to cooperate with mental health experts recommended by prosecutors because he thought they were against him.
Patterson was so delusional that he insisted his plate of beans was talking to him and that he could not be executed because he had been granted amnesty. In the execution chamber, when asked if he had a final statement, Patterson replied, "Statement to what? Statement to what?"
"I'm not guilty of the charge of capital murder," he said. "They're doing this to steal my money. ... Give me my rights. Give me my life back."
Monty Delk's execution in 2002 was similarly bizarre. Delk claimed he was the prison warden and demanded to be removed from the execution chamber. "Get your warden off this gurney and shut up," Delk said. After a string of profanities, Delk blurted, "You are not in America. This is the island of Barbados. People will see you doing this."
As with Patterson, only the lethal drugs ended his babbling.
James Colburn, put to death in 2003, suffered from schizophrenia beginning in adolescence, spoke of hearing voices and once complained of a man living inside his stomach. He believed his execution was God's way of punishing him.
Not seeking blanket banPatterson, Delk and Colburn likely would have been able to satisfy the definition, advocated by Panetti's lawyers, of being incompetent for execution. But, Keilen said, only a blanket ban on executing the mentally ill would have a measurable effect on the death row population, and that never has been an issue the Supreme Court has shown an interest in confronting.
She said her only goal is for the justices to give real meaning to their previous ruling, which over the past two decades rarely has resulted in Texas inmates being able to show incompetence to be executed.
Reinert reported from Washington; Tolson from Houston.