Thursday, February 5, 2004

Insane prisoner granted stay in the USA

The case of a condemned killer with a history of paranoid delusions and violent outbursts raises questions about executing the mentally ill

AUSTIN, Texas -- By the time Scott Panetti went on trial for the double shotgun murders of his in-laws in Fredericksburg, Texas, he had already been hospitalized 14 times for schizophrenia, paranoid delusions and homicidal behavior.

So it was not surprising to those who knew him when Panetti fired his attorneys and insisted on representing himself, launching an incoherent defense during which he dressed like a Hollywood cowboy and attempted to subpoena Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy and Anne Bancroft as witnesses on his behalf.

What did shock many of the observers at the 1995 trial, however, was the fact that it was allowed to proceed and that Panetti was quickly convicted and sentenced to death, despite the flagrant courtroom displays of his severe mental illness.

With the hours counting down to Panetti's scheduled execution Thursday, his attorneys won a 60-day stay from a federal judge on Wednesday by arguing that Panetti was never competent to defend himself and is too psychotic to comprehend what is about to happen to him.

But the record in the nation's leading death-penalty state, where an inmate, [prisoner], experiencing hallucinations was once strapped onto a gurney and given a lethal injection, offers his attorneys only scant hope of preventing Panetti's eventual execution.

Legal and mental health experts say the Panetti case points up the absence of any national consensus about the morality of executing the mentally ill. Moreover, many contend that prosecutors and juries are too often swayed by their skepticism over insanity claims and their fear of violent schizophrenics to consider mental illness as a mitigating factor in such cases.

`Future dangerousness'

Texas law, in fact, requires juries to consider a defendant's "future dangerousness" when weighing whether to impose the death penalty.

"In a perverse way, the more mentally ill a person is, the more likely a jury will be to regard him as a future danger," said David Dow, a defense attorney and death penalty expert at the University of Houston who interviewed Panetti on Death Row on Tuesday. "Mental illness is currently a factor that increases, rather than decreases, the likelihood that somebody will be executed."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that mentally retarded criminals could not be put to death, but the justices have not established a similar exception for offenders suffering from mental illness at the time of their crimes. Instead, the often elusive questions of sanity and competency to stand trial have been left up to individual judges and juries.

"The definitions of mental illness that we use in the legal sphere tolerate a very gross level of impairment," said Elisabeth Semel, director of the death penalty clinic at the University of California, Berkeley law school. "Something that would get you hospitalized in the mental health world will not preclude your trial or execution in the legal realm."

The Supreme Court has only addressed a prisoner's sanity at the time of execution, ruling in 1986 that an inmate, [prisoner], can be executed as long as he is aware of the punishment and understands why he is being subjected to it. That ruling led to a case in Arkansas in which a psychotic prisoner was medicated until he was sane enough to understand he was going to be executed. He was put to death last month.

Panetti clearly fails the Supreme Court's test, his attorneys contend. Mark Cunningham, a forensic psychologist who joined Dow in interviewing Panetti this week, found him to be "actively psychotic" and unable "to maintain a linear and logical train of thought," according to an affidavit he submitted.

"Mr. Panetti expressed the belief that God may render him invulnerable to lethal injection so that he may go on preaching the gospel," Cunningham wrote.

"In more than 15 years of representing Death Row inmates, [prisoners],," wrote Dow, in an accompanying affidavit, "I do not believe I have met anyone who is as obviously and as deeply mentally disturbed as Mr. Panetti clearly is."

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks agreed and granted a 60-day stay Wednesday so that a state court can re-examine Panetti's competency.

Panetti, 45, a native of Poynette, Wis., was in and out of mental hospitals for 11 years before he murdered his estranged wife's parents in 1992.

Police were called to his home after numerous violent outbursts and threats against his wife and her family. At one point, just two weeks before the killings, Panetti's wife pleaded with the authorities to seize his shotgun and rifle. They did not do so.

On Sept. 8, 1992, Panetti shaved his head, dressed in army fatigues and burst into his in-laws' home wielding a sawed-off shotgun. He killed Jose and Amanda Alvarado, and briefly took his wife and young daughter hostage before changing into a suit and surrendering to police.

One jury deadlocked over Panetti's sanity but a second determined he was competent to stand trial, and the trial judge permitted him to serve as his own attorney. Some of Panetti's former doctors and lawyers, who watched in the courtroom as Panetti rambled disjointedly, badgered witnesses and menaced the jury, later pronounced the trial a "farce" and a "circus."

"I thought to myself, my God, how in the world can our legal system allow an insane man to defend himself?" Dr. F.E. Seale, a psychiatrist who had treated Panetti and observed part of the trial, wrote in an affidavit.

Cause celebre for activists

Panetti's case has become a cause celebre among European anti-death penalty activists, and Amnesty International has expressed concern as well, noting that "the United Nations Commission for Human Rights has repeatedly called on countries which still use the death penalty not to use it against anyone suffering from a mental disorder."

The National Mental Health Association, which estimates that up to 10 percent of the more than 3,500 Death Row inmates nationwide may suffer from serious mental illnesses, has appealed to Texas Gov. Rick Perry to commute Panetti's sentence to life in prison.

"We are not suggesting that people with mental illness be exempt from criminal sanctions, only that their punishment should not include the death penalty," said Michael Faenza, the group's president.

By Howard Witt posted 5 February 04


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