Execution is set for man found mentally ill in past

Nonprofit law group asks Texas governor for 30-day reprieve to review case

February 04, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

HOUSTON - In one of the more extraordinary cases in the nation's leading death penalty state, a murder defendant with a long history of mental illness who fired his lawyers and argued his own insanity defense in a cowboy outfit is scheduled to be executed tomorrow.

The condemned man, Scott Louis Panetti, 45, is to die by lethal injection unless the governor or the courts intervene.

In 1992, Panetti, who was then 34 and had been hospitalized 14 times for mental illness, smashed his way into the home of his estranged wife and, with her and their young daughter watching, shot her parents to death.

At his trial in 1995, Panetti dressed in a Tom Mix hat and cowboy garb, rambled incoherently and tried to subpoena Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy and Anne Bancroft. He went into trances, nodded off and gestured threateningly at jurors.

Appeals courts up to the U.S. Supreme Court have declined to intervene. Robert Black, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Perry, said, "No decision has been made."

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the verdict and sentence in 1997, ruling that whether or not Panetti was competent to represent himself was not the issue: "The appropriate question is whether he is competent to choose the endeavor." And the court ruled that he was.

It also found that "a mere mental disease or defect, though it may constitute a form of insanity known to and recognized by medical science, does not excuse one for committing a crime." The court found evidence that he knew what he was doing was wrong.

The same issue came to bear in the case of Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children and, by calling the police afterward, proved to the court's satisfaction that she knew right from wrong at the time.

The National Mental Health Association, based in Alexandria, Va., called yesterday on the governor to commute Panetti's sentence to life imprisonment, saying he "has schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and there is evidence to suggest that he was psychotic at the time of his crime." The group said his mental illness "hindered his ability to aid in his own defense."

At a news conference in Austin yesterday, representatives of the Texas Defender Service, a private nonprofit law firm representing indigent capital defendants, called on Perry for a 30-day reprieve to allow a case review.

"Allowing a schizophrenic in a cowboy costume to represent himself in a death penalty case gives new meaning to the term `frontier justice,' " said Jim Marcus, executive director of the defender service. "Given the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' history of tolerance for defense lawyers who sleep or use drugs and alcohol throughout death penalty trials, however, its laissez-faire approach is hardly surprising," he said.

Scott Monroe, who was named standby counsel with no authority to aid the defense unless asked, said: "It was very obvious from his mannerisms and the way he conducted himself that he was mentally ill. There was never a question about that. That was very well documented, but still he was allowed to defend himself in that case, and basically I sat around and watched him do it.

"I felt like I was incompetent the entire time, because I was helpless," Monroe said. "I couldn't do anything."

Steven Abels, the trial judge who heard the case in Kerrville, said through his office that he could not comment because he may yet have to rule again on the case. The Gillespie County District Attorney, Bruce Curry, did not return a call.

Even in a state that has executed 317 prisoners since the death penalty was reinstated in 1982 (Virginia ranks a distant second with 89), the Panetti case stands out. After Panetti surrendered and confessed, a trial to determine his mental competency resulted in a hung jury, with 10 of the 12 jurors voting for incompetency. The trial was moved to another county, where a second trial found him competent. Panetti was represented by counsel in both trials.

Panetti claimed he had nearly drowned as a youth and suffered electric shock as a linesman and twice been brought back from the dead. He was first hospitalized in 1981 for alcohol dependency and then again for behavior termed psychotic, delusional and paranoid. He was in and out of other hospitals a dozen times for suicidal and homicidal behavior.

"He believed that people in Fredericksburg were plotting against him," said Michael R. Arambula, a psychiatrist who evaluated Panetti for the defense. Panetti said he was being punished for being a Nazarite, those the ancient Hebrews said were especially consecrated to God. He also invoked an alter ego that he called "Sarge," who he said was out to kill him.

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