death penalty news—-TEXAS

March 27


Schizophrenic death row man in Texas on path to execution

A schizophrenic inmate in Texas is again on the path to execution after a
federal judge pronounced him sufficiently rational to understand why he
has been sentenced to death.

In 1986 the US Supreme Court ruled that a convict could be executed only
if that person realized that he or she was going to die, and understood

Scott Panetti, 50, was sentenced to die for a double homicide he
acknowledged having committed.

But the Supreme Court in June blocked his execution and ordered judges in
Austin, Texas to determine if Panetti realized that he was to be executed
as punishment for the murder of his in-laws.

Federal Judge Sam Sparks in Austin, Texas gathered evidence from experts,
prison cell mates, prison guards, and friends and relatives of Panetti to
better understand the convict's mental state.

"Panetti was mentally ill when he committed his crime and continues to be
mentally ill today," read Sparks' opinion, issued Wednesday.

"However, he has both a factual and rational understanding of his crime,
his impending death, and the causal retributive connection between the 2.

"Therefore, if any mentally ill person is competent to be executed for his
crimes, this record establishes it is Scott Panetti," Sparks wrote.

In September 1992, Panetti, who had previously been hospitalized for
serious schizophrenic problems, murdered his parents in-law.

A judge ruled that he was competent to stand trial, and he was allowed to
represent himself in the case.

Dressed as a cowboy, in his trial Panetti called on Jesus Christ, the late
US president John F. Kennedy and the late Pope John Paul II as witnesses.
His statements were laced with delirious and incomprehensible monologues.

(source: Agence France-Presse)


Ex-Dallas death row inmate gets life in prison in plea deal—-Prosecutors
end pursuit of death penalty in 1991 case

A man whose death sentence was overturned last year by the U.S. Supreme
Court agreed to life in prison Thursday in exchange for Dallas County
prosecutors not seeking to execute him. The plea bargain likely means
LaRoyce Smith will die in prison.

District Attorney Craig Watkins had said as recently as 11 months ago that
he would seek the death penalty against Mr. Smith after the high court
overturned his sentence for a second time. The Supreme Court overturned
the sentence but not the conviction because it ruled that the jury at
Mr. Smith's trial was not allowed to consider his low IQ of 78 and that he
was a 19-year-old ninth-grader as mitigating factors.

Mr. Smith's plea deal comes one week after a special prosecutor made a
plea bargain with a man whose Dallas County conviction and death sentence
were overturned by the Supreme Court because of racial bias in jury
selection. In that case, Thomas Joe Miller-El pleaded guilty to murder and
aggravated robbery, and prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty.

In Mr. Smith's case, Dallas County prosecutors David Alex and Kim Schaefer
said they offered the plea bargain because even if a jury again sentenced
Mr. Smith to death, they would be in court for years litigating issues of
mental retardation. The prosecutors said they also would have faced
federal court litigation over matters dealing with the guilt/innocence
portion of Mr. Smith's original trial.

As part of the plea deal, Mr. Smith, 37, agreed to drop those issues in

"Let's say we tried him again and got a death sentence," Mr. Alex said.
"They wouldn't have killed him. They would have relitigated those issues."

Mr. Smith's attorneys declined to comment. Mr. Smith's family also said
they did not want to talk.

Mr. Smith was convicted in the 1991 shooting and stabbing of Jennifer
Soto, the 19-year-old night manager at a DeSoto Taco Bell where he also

If the case had gone back to trial and Mr. Smith was given a life
sentence, he would be eligible for parole after serving 15 years because
of the law at the time. Those who commit capital murder today and are
given a life sentence are not eligible for parole.

He also pleaded guilty to aggravated kidnapping, burglary of a building
and retaliation. His sentences for those crimes of 99 years, 20 years and
eight years, respectively, will each be served consecutively to the life
sentence. Under Thursday's plea bargain, it is possible though unlikely
for Mr. Smith to become eligible for parole after serving 37 years.

Ms. Schaefer said the law regarding mitigating factors changed as the
district attorney's office was litigating Mr. Smith's case.

"It's hard to look the [victim's] family in the eye and tell them the
system failed them," she said.

Ms. Soto's mother, Brenda Soto, said after the hearing that it was
difficult for her to approve the plea agreement but did so to avoid future
hearings and trials. She said that though the legal battle is over, she
will do whatever she can to make sure Mr. Smith isn't granted parole.

"I went along with it to put an end to it. I was tired," she said. "There
will always be someone to speak in her behalf. There will always be a
voice for her somewhere."

Mr. Smith apologized to the Soto family in court by saying he was sorry
for "the actions" and "the events."

"He never said he was sorry for killing Jennifer," Brenda Soto said. "I
don't know if he's truly sorry."

As part of the plea agreement, Mr. Smith, who has been in prison since his
1991 conviction, must meet with the Soto family if they choose. Brenda
Soto said she likely will meet her daughter's killer because, "I've got 17
years worth of questions bottled up in me."

At the time of Mr. Smith's conviction, jurors had to answer 2 questions
when deciding if a defendant deserved a death sentence. Was the conduct
deliberate? Did the defendant still pose a threat? Answering yes to both
questions meant death.

In 1991, the state Legislature added a 3rd question that allowed jurors to
consider mitigating evidence that could lead to a life sentence.

The Supreme Court first threw out Mr. Smith's death sentence in 2004 on a
7-2 vote and ordered the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to take action.
The state appeals court upheld the conviction in an 8-1 vote.

The Supreme Court then voted 5-4 last year to once again toss Mr. Smith's
sentence, leading to Thursday's plea bargain.

(source: Dallas Morning News)