Mentally Ill Death Row Inmate Scott Panetti Isn't Too Mentally Ill to Be Executed Wednesday

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UPDATE December 3, 2014: The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has stayed the execution of Scott Panetti, who had been scheduled for execution in Texas December 3 at 6 p.m.

During Scott Panetti's 1995 capital murder trial, Kerr County District Judge Stephen Ables interrupted Panetti as he asked a witness about a belt buckle.

"Can you explain to me how the belt buckle is relevant to any issue in this case?" Ables asked the man in the purple cowboy suit, the man who mercilessly shotgunned his mother- and father-in-law to death three years before. Panetti explained the buckle's relevance like this: "It has to do with the difference between a rodeo hand and a buckaroo poet."

But that wasn't all. The buckle evidence was vital, per Panetti, because "Before religion, when you got religion, prior religion, church member, I'm going to have witnesses from the church come in and Chaplain Bob got on his knees and read that buckle, Ranger Cummings, read this buckle and people go out of their way. At rodeos, cowboys make sure they look at your buckle without you looking at it."

That exchange, cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 2007 opinion, describes in a nutshell the brain-twisting debate over whether Panetti is competent enough to be executed.

Here's the background: On a September morning in 1992, Panetti, a man with a history of treatment for mental illness, woke up, shaved his head and took a shotgun to his estranged wife's parents' home. Panetti asked Sonja Alvarado who should die first -- she or her parents -- but he decided to answer the question himself by turning the gun on Joseph and Amanda Alvarado. He then kidnapped Sonja and his three-year-old daughter, eventually releasing them to police.

After he was found competent to stand trial, Panetti was allowed by Judge Ables to represent himself. He gained notoriety by wearing a cowboy costume and subpoenaing Jesus Christ. (Panetti originally planned on calling the Pope and John F. Kennedy as well, but apparently decided the Prince of Peace's would be testimony enough.)

Panetti argued that he was not guilty by reason of insanity. Prosecutors maintained that Panetti was malingering -- while they conceded to elements of mental illness, they weren't buying his claim to legal insanity. The jury sided with the state. (An appellate judge later cited prison tape recordings of Panetti's phone conversations with his parents in which he apparently seemed in full control of his faculties.)

After myriad legal challenges that reached SCOTUS, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled last week that Panetti is indeed fit to be killed, although one Republican judge disagreed to the point where he wrote that he no longer believed in the death penalty.

"It is inconceivable to me how the execution of a severely mentally ill person such as [Panetti] would measurably advance the retribution and deterrence purposes purportedly served by the death penalty," wrote Judge Tom Price, who's serving his last year on the court.

Panetti's lawyers have argued in appeals that Panetti understands that, officially, he was sentenced to death for the murder of his in-laws, but that Panetti believes that's a cover for the truth: that the state is merely a pawn of Satan, who wants Panetti killed so he can no longer preach the gospel.

Judges have argued over how much capital convicts need to know -- is it enough that they are aware of the fact that they were convicted of a crime, and are aware of the fact that the execution is based on the conviction, or must they have a "rational understanding" of those facts?

To us, arguing about whether a mentally ill dude is smart enough to be lethally injected seems to be an empty exercise: how much sense does it make for a person to be competent enough to be tried in a death penalty case, yet not competent enough to actually be executed?

In jurisprudence, "competency" and "sanity" can lack commonsense, real-world applications. And we don't even need to rely on the Panetti case to explore that. We need only to look at the case of Andre Thomas, who believed he was following God's orders when he killed his wife, four-year-old son and his wife's 13-month-old daughter, then carved out the kids' hearts and tucked them in his pockets.

A few days after his arrest, while in jail, Thomas read a passage in his Bible that inspired him to gouge out his right eye. He was later found competent to stand trial. Like Panetti, he was sentenced to death. While on death row, he plucked out his remaining eye and ate it, because he was afraid the government could reattach it and read his mind.

In her 2009 opinion denying Thomas's habeas relief, CCA Judge Cathy Cochran wrote, "While there is no dispute that [Thomas] was, in laymen's terms, 'crazy' at the time he killed his wife and the children, the legal question is whether he knew that what he was doing was 'wrong' or a 'crime' at the time he acted."

Cochran also described Thomas's behavior in the months leading up to the murders: "He put duct tape over his mouth and refused to speak; he talked about how the dollar bill contains the meaning of life; he stated that he was experiencing deja vu and reliving events time and again; he had a religious fixation and heard the voice of God....In the weeks before the murders, [Thomas] was heard by others talking about his auditory and visual hallucinations of God and demons."

Thus, it is possible to gouge out one's eyeballs, making sure to eat one to prevent government mind-reading, and actually see demons, yet not be legally "crazy."

As the CCA's Judge Price wrote about Panetti's case last week, "I can imagine no rational reason for carving a line between the prohibition on the execution of a mentally retarded person or an insane person while permitting the execution of a severely mentally ill person."

But compared to Thomas's case, arguing about Panetti's ordeal seems as silly as wearing a cowboy costume to court. Still, if we were to argue that Panetti got a raw deal, we would stress that belt-buckle exchange.

Here's why: Panetti was deemed competent to represent himself at trial, but he was also allowed to argue that he was insane. Yet, from what we can tell, he was not fully allowed to explore the implication of various witnesses' belt buckles because the trial judge did not find it relevant. It doesn't seem particularly relevant to us, either. But then again, we don't think we're insane, so we'd never bring it up. However, we can see why an insane person may have trouble asking questions that make any sense.

Yet Panetti was deemed competent enough to question witnesses, so therefore he should have been allowed to introduce as much belt-buckle evidence as he felt was necessary. If the trial judge did not seize on a preoccupation with belt buckles as either a sign of incompetency or a more basic inability to act pro se, then Panetti should have been allowed to continue that line of questioning. He should have been allowed to fully demonstrate to the jurors who held his fate the difference between buckaroo poets and rodeo hands. State witness after state witness should have been grilled on their expertise -- or lack thereof -- in buckaroo poetry.

Or would that have been crazy?

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