Scott Panetti, a 56 year old man in Texas was scheduled to be executed the other night for murdering his in-laws in 1992. What is important to note about this case is that in 1978, he was diagnosed with Schizophrenia, a very serious brain disorder. With bi-partisan support and much public outcry, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals halted the execution just hours before Mr. Panetti was scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection.
In the stay of execution, the Circuit Court wrote, "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." Yes, there is complexity to this case but there are also facts that make this decision simple and easy to understand.....
Mr. Panetti showed signs of a mental disorder as a teenager and his first diagnosis was in 1978 while he was in the US Navy. In 1990, he was committed to a psychiatric hospital for the second time and has been hospitalized for his medical condition more than a dozen times.
At the time of the murder of his in-laws, he had gone off of his medication, was hearing voices and experiencing delusions and put on a business suit before surrendering to the police.
Mr. Panetti has represented himself in court, sometimes wearing a cowboy costume and a purple bandana. He rejected a plea offer that would change his sentence to life imprisonment, mounting an insanity defense. But instead of calling witnesses to attest to his mental health, he tried to subpoena John F. Kennedy, Pope John Paul II, Jesus Christ and 200 others. He was incoherent during the trial and fell asleep.
His attorneys appealed before the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, requesting funding for a mental health expert to evaluate his competency, something that hasn't been done since 2007. His lawyers also appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, requesting the stay based on the 8th Amendment's protection against cruel and unusual punishment because, as argued by his attorneys, Panetti still hears voices and suffers from delusions which prevent him from understanding why he is being executed.
We also know that Mr. Panetti is a son, a father and a brother. One of the brightest lights in the dark vigil over the past week has been Mr. Panetti's sister's loving plea for her brother's life in the petition that she initiated that was signed by 97,287 supporters. The petition began with this poignant statement from his sister, "Scott Panetti is a paranoid schizophrenic who wore a TV-western cowboy costume in court and was allowed to represent himself while on trial for his life. But I know him as my big brother, the strong and handsome sailor, who came home to visit when on leave from the Navy."
And most importantly, we know that judgement is a slippery slope and that love and forgiveness are always the safer choices. Questions of justice and civil rights are looming large on many fronts in our country right now, so let's celebrate the light that our federal court system has shown in this moment for a thoughtful review of a decision about Scott Panetti and his medical condition. Because at issue is not only his life or death, but our nation's collective soul.