Wednesday, November 29, 2006
By RALPH BLUMENTHAL
LIVINGSTON, Tex. — Scott Louis Panetti says he was drowned and electrocuted as
a child and that he was recently stabbed in the eye in his death row cell by
the devil. Mr. Panetti says he has wounds that were inflicted by demons and
healed by President John F. Kennedy.
"The devil has been trying to rub me out to keep me from preaching," Mr.
Panetti, explaining why he faces execution, said in an interview from behind
thick glass in the Polunsky Unit here in East Texas, where condemned prisoners
are held before transfer to the death house 45 miles west in Huntsville.
Despite Mr. Panetti’s obvious mental illness — he was a mental patient long
before he gunned down his in-laws in 1992 — he served as his own lawyer at his
murder trial, throwing the courtroom into chaos with frequent gibberish. Now
the hyperactive and gangling Mr. Panetti, 48, has become an illustration of
the growing quandary over the application of a 1986 Supreme Court decision
barring execution of the insane.
The ruling appears to be limited to those without the capacity to understand
that they are about to be put to death and why. Whether Mr. Panetti fits that
definition is a matter of dispute.
In an appeal to the Supreme Court that could affect the cases of other
mentally ill prisoners awaiting execution, Mr. Panetti’s lawyers argue that
while he has a "factual awareness" of his execution, he has a "delusional
belief" that it is unconnected to his crime, and that he should therefore be
spared lethal injection.
The case of another mentally ill death row inmate, Guy T. LeGrande, who
represented himself and is scheduled to die Dec. 1 in Raleigh, N.C., is going
through its final state appeals, with his lawyers arguing that he, too, is
delusional, and that he hastened his execution by abandoning his defense.
Charged in the contract killing of a woman whose husband pleaded guilty to
plotting the murder and is serving life, Mr. LeGrande, 47, says he is innocent
and was framed. He appeared in court in 1996 in a Superman T-shirt, cursed the
jurors as "Antichrists" and taunted them, "Pull the switch and let the good
times roll." They took less than an hour to sentence him to death.
Experts and advocates in the field say the issue of executing the mentally ill
is the next frontier in death penalty law.
"This is an emerging issue," said Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the
Death Penalty Information Center, a research institute in Washington that
opposes capital punishment.
Mr. Dieter cited the Panetti and LeGrande cases as gray areas in which "the
death penalty may be extreme punishment given their reduced culpability."
Franklin E. Zimring, a professor of law at the University of California,
Berkeley, and author of "The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment"
(Oxford University Press, 2003), said there was something "indigestible" about
"We assume people don’t want to die," Mr. Zimring said. "But these are
defendants that call the legal system’s bluff."
Concern over execution of the mentally disabled prompted the American Bar
Association last August to join a widening chorus of professionals calling for
a halt to death sentences and executions for defendants with severe mental
disorders that "significantly impaired" their rational judgment or capacity to
appreciate the wrongfulness of their conduct. The moratorium was endorsed
earlier by the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological
Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
The groups also opposed death sentences for prisoners with mental disorders
that impaired their ability to assist their lawyers and make rational
decisions on their appeals. The Supreme Court has already barred execution for
the mentally retarded and for juveniles.
"An increasing percentage of people executed are people giving up their
appeals," said Ronald J. Tabak, a lawyer at the firm Skadden, Arps, Slate,
Meagher & Flom in Manhattan and a specialist in capital cases who led the bar
association’s death penalty task force. "And of these, a significant
percentage have serious mental illness."
The Supreme Court’s 1986 ruling, on a Florida case, Ford v. Wainwright, left
much unclear. Although no state permitted execution of the insane, the
justices affirmed that the Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual
punishment prohibited it. But they did not provide a standard for determining
when someone was competent enough to be executed.
In a concurring opinion later adopted as law by lower courts, Justice Lewis F.
Powell Jr. said it was enough "if the defendant perceives the connection
between his crime and the punishment." Justice Powell also said that the
Constitution "forbids the execution only of those who are unaware of the
punishment they are about to suffer and why they are to suffer it."
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit found that Mr.
Panetti had the requisite legal awareness. And the Texas attorney general,
Greg Abbott, has argued that the execution, as yet unscheduled after having
been postponed in 2004, should proceed.
There is no dispute that Mr. Panetti is "profoundly mentally ill," his lawyers
Gregory W. Wiercioch, Keith S. Hampton and Michael C. Gross said in a petition
seeking to overturn the Fifth Circuit ruling. In the decade before the
murders, they said, he was hospitalized 14 times in six institutions for
schizophrenia, manic depression, auditory hallucinations and delusions of
persecution. Believing the devil was in his furniture, he buried it in the
backyard, and thinking the devil was in the walls, he hallucinated that they
were running with blood.
On Sept. 8, 1992, Mr. Panetti, dressed in military fatigues and carrying a
sawed-off shotgun, a rifle and knives, invaded the Fredericksburg home where
his estranged wife, Sonja Alvarado, had taken refuge with her parents, Joe and
Amanda Alvarado. In front of his wife and their 3-year-old daughter, known as
Birdie, he shot the Alvarados to death and took his wife and daughter captive
before releasing them unharmed and surrendering.
In 1994, a first jury deadlocked on his mental competency, but a second found
him able to stand trial.
Waiving legal counsel, Mr. Panetti represented himself, appearing in court in
cowboy garb and seeking to subpoena Jesus before deciding "he doesn’t need a
subpoena — he’s right here with me." He attributed the killings to an alter
ego named Sarge Ironhorse and, testifying in Sarge’s voice after calling
himself as a witness, recounted the killings:
"Sarge is gone. No more Sarge. Sonja and Birdie. Birdie and Sonja. Joe, Amanda
lying kitchen, here, there blood. No, leave. Scott, remember exactly what
Sarge did. Shot the lock. Walked in the kitchen. Sonja, where’s Birdie? Sonja
here. Joe, bayonet, door, Amanda. Boom, boom, blood, blood. Demons. Ha, ha,
ha, ha, oh, lord, oh, you."
When Judge Stephen B. Ables tried to cut him off, Mr. Panetti said, "You puppet."
Mr. Panetti does appear to have moments of lucidity, and these disconcerted
the juries at his competency hearing and trial, planting suspicions that he
might have been faking.
"Not to make excuses," he said in the death row interview, "but when someone’s
insane, they’re insane."
Psychiatrists testified that schizophrenic patients often spoke intelligently.
Asked in the interview if he understood he was on death row for crimes he
committed, Mr. Panetti said: "Certainly not. They are in a strong
delusionment. They’ll be undeceived by delusionment."
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Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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