A court just stayed Scott Panetti’s execution. Here’s why his case is so controversial

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Death row inmate Scott Panetti has repeatedly shown signs of mental illness.
Death row inmate Scott Panetti has repeatedly shown signs of mental illness.
Image: AP Photo/Texas Department of Criminal Justice

Scott Panetti, a 56-year-old convicted murderer, was scheduled to be executed tonight in Texas, by lethal injection. But this morning, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed 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.”

Why did the court, thought to be one of the most conservative in the country, halt the execution?

Panetti has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and hospitalized 15 times, and many disputed whether he could be held accountable for his actions through such severe punishment. He was sentenced for shooting and killing his in-laws in 1992. He attributed the crime to his alter-ego, a character named Sarge, and has shown signs of mental illness many times since. Prosecutors in his case maintained he was faking the symptoms.

The case has galvanized the public, drawing criticism to the American criminal justice system that allows capital punishment for the insane.

Panetti’s lawyers have appealed multiple times to stop the execution, including asking the US Supreme Court to intervene and examine the question of executing the mentally ill. Among those asking to reduce Panetti’s sentence were a group of conservative leaders who urged Texas governor Rick Perry to commute the sentence.

“It would be immoral for the government to take this man’s life,” they wrote, emphasizing that Panetti was “mentally incapable of rational thought.” Here’s why they thought this was true:

Early signs of psychosis

Panetti showed signs of a mental disorder as a teenager, and was hospitalized on multiple occasions. His first diagnosis came in 1978 while he was in the US Navy. Delusional, he thought he embarked on a spiritual war with Satan, which included exorcising his house with water and burying the furniture in the backyard. He was institutionalized after the incident. In 1990, he was committed to a mental hospital once again after threatening to kill his wife and daughter, swinging a cavalry sword at them.

The bizarre murder and equally bizarre surrender

One day in 1992, after going off his medication, Panetti shaved his head, sawed off a shotgun, and, wearing a military-style outfit, went to the house of the parents of his estranged wife. He shot both of them in the chest in the presence of his wife and 3-year-old daughter, spraying them with their blood. Panetti held his family hostage, eventually surrendering to the police. Before he turned himself over, he put on a business suit.

The emergence of “Sarge”

At his trial, Panetti assumed the character of his hallucination, Sgt. Ranahan Iron Horse, or “Sarge,” whom he claimed was responsible for the murder. He described the events in third person, scaring the jurors by pointing an imaginary rifle at them.

An incompetent attorney

Panetti represented himself in court, sometimes wearing a cowboy costume and a purple bandana. He rejected a plea offer that would change his sentence to life imprisonment, mounting an insanity defense. But instead of calling witnesses to attest to his mental health, he tried to subpoena John F. Kennedy, pope John Paul II, Jesus Christ, and 200 others. He was incoherent during the trial, and fell asleep.

Delusions galore

According to a document rejecting one of Panetti’s petitions, experts testified that while he seemed to understand that the state was pursuing his execution for the murder of his in-laws, his delusions led him to believe “that the State was actually ‘in league with the forces of evil,’ seeking his execution ‘to prevent him from preaching the Gospel.’” The experts were unable to reach a formal conclusion whether Panetti did understand the reason for his execution.

Conflicting evaluations

Throughout Panetti’s case, various experts, psychiatrists, and clinical psychologists have declared him mentally ill. In 2008, however, the state’s experts argued that Panetti was malingering his illness, and presented coherent conversations he had with his parents as evidence. (Another expert told Slate it is “extremely doubtful” someone could fake schizophrenia for decades.) One of the main reasons why Panetti appealed for the stay of his execution was that had not received a competency evaluation in seven years.