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Will Scott Panetti Get a Chance to Prove He's Too Mentally Ill to Be Executed?

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Twenty years ago, a man in a purple cowboy suit was sentenced to death after failing to convince jurors that he was insane.

After he was accused of murdering his in-laws in 1992, Scott Panetti was found competent to stand trial and defend himself, despite having been diagnosed with schizophrenia since 1978. For the last 20 years, attorneys representing Panetti have argued with the state about whether he is in fact competent enough to withstand an execution.

In his trial, Panetti attempted to call Jesus Christ and John F. Kennedy as witnesses. He asked a prospective jury member whether the person had “Indian blood.” He told officials the reason he was being executed was because Satan wanted to prevent him from preaching the gospel.

Panetti's case has made some question how the system could execute individuals who appear to suffer from such severe mental illness.

Yesterday, Panetti's lawyers asked a panel of three judges on the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to send the case back to a lower federal court to decide whether Panetti could have a federally appointed defense and also receive funds for a mental health evaluation, the Texas Tribune reported last night. In order to be executed, Panetti must demonstrate that he understands why he is being punished—something the state contends Panetti has known all along.

But in order for lawyers to prove that Panetti is mentally incompetent and therefore would never grasp why he is being put to death, he would need to have that mental health evaluation—and Panetti has no money to pay for it. He hasn't been evaluated since 2007, and since then, his lawyers say his mental illness has only gotten worse. As the Tribune reports, Panetti had been hospitalized about a dozen times for schizophrenia since 1978—yet still, prison doctors reportedly said he did not need treatment.

In any case, an attorney with the state said they would not be paying for Panetti's evaluation. Judge Priscilla Owen called it an "impossible standard" to meet if an indigent death row inmate might have to prove his own incompetency because he can't pay experts.

The Fifth Circuit stepped intervened just hours before Panetti was set to die on December 3, 2014, granting a stay of execution. Seven years ago, Panetti's case went as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, which said people who could not rationally understand their punishment could not be executed—but they left it up to states to decide what that rational understanding looks like.

One of Panetti's two lawyers, Greg Wiercioch, told judge that they were bypassing the state level because these were issues only a federal court was fit to handle. Still, the question that remains for now is whether Panetti will get a mental health evaluation before his execution and, if so, who's going to pay for it. The state of Texas certainly does not plan on helping.

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