In her latest piece, Stephanie Mencimer of Mother Jones sheds light on the case of Scott Panetti—a death row prisoner who Texas wants to execute despite a decades-long history of severe mental illness and serious questions remaining about his competency to be executed.
In her account of the bizarre trial, Mencimer details:
“After he was arrested and charged with the killings, Panetti, who has a history of severe mental illness, represented himself at his capital trial wearing a purple cowboy suit. He called himself “Sarge” and subpoenaed Jesus, among other notables. He lost, of course. The jury found him guilty and sentenced him to death…Two jurors later told one of Panetti’s lawyers that his behavior had so frightened them that they voted for death largely to make sure he’d never get out of prison.”
Panetti’s case eventually made it all the way up to the Supreme Court in 2007, after attorneys for Panetti argued that mental illness made him unfit for execution. Panetti won his case, which was sent back to the lower courts for reconsideration.
In those lower court proceedings, the State’s chief expert, Dr. Waldman, “doubted that Panetti suffered from any form of mental illness and was emphatic in his opinion that Panetti has a rational understanding of the…connection between [his] crime and [his] execution,” despite conceding on the stand that he hadn’t given Panetti a single test or standard psychological exam. Eventually:
“The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Panetti, quoting Waldman at length in its August 2013 ruling—even though Waldman was the only expert who testified at the competency hearing that Panetti was not, in fact, sick.”
On October 6, the U.S. Supreme Court’s refused to hear Panetti’s case again and clarify the standard for assessing a prisoner’s competency for execution. Whatever may be next for Panetti, Mencimer’s comprehensive article delves deep into the layers of absurdity in Panetti’s case, leaving one to question how on earth a person so obviously mentally ill can be sane enough for execution.