Fifth Circuit Issues a Stay of Execution: Scott Panetti Won't Be Executed Tonight

The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has stayed the execution of Scott Panetti, who had been scheduled for execution in Texas tonight at 6 p.m.

The order, issued by Chief Justice Carl Stewart, Judge Patrick Higginbotham and Judge Priscilla Owen reads as follows:

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.1 An order setting a briefing schedule and oral argument will follow.

In 1995 Panetti was convicted of the murders of Joe Alvarado and Amanda Alvarado, his parents-in-law on September 8, 1992 in Gillespie County. The thing is Panetti has suffered from mental illness for more than 30 years. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic in 1978 and was in and out of mental hospitals years before he committed the murders, and he didn't exactly get less erratic after.

After Panetti was indicted and charged for the crime in 1992, he insisted on representing himself and the judge on the case allowed it. He wore a cowboy outfit, trimmed with purple, and carried a cowboy Bible throughout the trial.

His legal self defense didn't improve as the trial went on. He interrogated one prospective jury member as to whether the person had any "Indian blood," before launching into a tirade about an event he called "Wounded Elbow" -- apparently he confused the battle of Wounded Knee with something to do with the Ayatollah, according to the clemency petition. He attempted to call about 200 witnesses, including JFK and Jesus Christ. Reading the transcript of the trial, Kase says she couldn't believe that no one ever forced proper representation on him.

As his execution date has approached, Panetti's legal team has been knocking on every legal door to try and get some kind of a reprieve or to get someone to review Panetti's mental state to see if he is fit to be executed. The Fifth Circuit almost never finds anyone too insane to be executed, but they have stepped in with Panetti's case.

Panetti's lawyers, Greg Wiercioch of University of Wisconsin Law School and Kathryn Kase of Texas Defender Service, issued a statement on the court's decision:

"We are grateful that the court stayed tonight's scheduled execution of Scott Panetti, a man who has suffered from schizophrenia for three decades, for a careful review of the issues surrounding his competency. Mr. Panetti's illness, schizophrenia, was present for years prior to the crime, profoundly affected his trial, and appears to have worsened in recent years. Mr. Panetti has not had a competency evaluation in seven years, and 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."

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