Panetti severe mental illness

New filing in Panetti case: Emerging consensus against death penalty for people with severe mental illness

Today, attorneys for Scott Panetti, a man who has suffered from schizophrenia for over thirty years, filed a challenge to the use of the death penalty against persons with severe mental illness, including schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, both of which were diagnosed in Mr. Panetti decades ago.

For Immediate Release: November 24, 2014
 Laura Burstein, 202-626-6868 (o); 202-669-3411 (c)
For More Information:

New Filing: National Consensus has Emerged against Imposition of the
Death Penalty for People with Severe Mental Illness

Attorneys for Scott Panetti, a Schizophrenic Man Scheduled for Execution on December 3rd, File Eighth Amendment Challenge in Texas’ Highest Court

(Austin, Texas, November 24, 2014) Today, attorneys for Scott Panetti, a man who has suffered from schizophrenia for over thirty years, filed a challenge to the use of the death penalty against persons with severe mental illness, including schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, both of which were diagnosed in Mr. Panetti decades ago.

The habeas petition, which was filed in the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, can be accessed here:

Mr. Panetti’s Subsequent Motion for a Stay of Execution can be accessed here:

Despite being a paranoid schizophrenic, Mr. Panetti represented himself at his capital murder trial in 1995. Wearing a cowboy costume with a purple bandana and attempting to call over 200 people to the witness stand, including the Pope, John F. Kennedy, Jesus Christ and his own alter ego, “Sarge,” Mr. Panetti was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Citing new research from a forthcoming empirical study, today’s filing argues that actual sentencing practices reveal an emerging consensus against use of the death penalty in cases where the defendant has severe mental illness. The new research, which examines the capital sentencing practices of 7 states, finds that only “5 out of 68, or 7.35% of defendants found [guilty but mentally ill] have been sentenced to death.”  (p. 45)

Furthermore, “the most recent instance in which a defendant found [guilty but mentally ill] was sentenced to death took place at least 20 years ago,” and none of those defendants has been executed. (pp. 45-46)

The new research “provides a critical element that has been missing from previous arguments that people with severe mental illness deserve the same constitutional protection when facing the death penalty that Atkins provides to people with intellectual disability. No court previously presented with this argument has had before it any evidence of actual relevant sentencing practices.” (pp. 43)

“The infrequency with which the death penalty is imposed on the class of death-eligible mentally ill defendants…demonstrates that a consensus has emerged against the imposition of the death penalty on mentally ill defendants.” (p. 47)

Other objective factors that demonstrate the national consensus against the death penalty for people with severe mental illness include the opinion of mental health professionals, and “[n]early every major mental health association in the United States has published policy statements recommending an outright…ban on the death penalty for offenders with severe mental illness….” (pp. 48-49)

The National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), NAMI’s Texas affiliate, the American Psychiatric Association, Mental Health America, Disability Rights Texas, dozens of other mental health experts and the American Bar Association, which in 2006 approved a resolution urging preclusion of the death penalty for those who were mentally ill at the time of their crimes, are actively urging officials in Texas to stop Mr. Panetti’s execution.

Today’s filing notes that “the imposition of the death penalty on people with severe mental illness, like people with intellectual disability [who are protected from the death penalty], does not serve the goals of deterrence and retribution because of their reduced moral culpability.” (p. 62). Furthermore, “defendants with severe mental illness have less ability to meaningfully assist counsel, have demeanors which can alienate a jury, and can less effectively testify on their own behalf.” (p. 64)

This was certainly the case with Mr. Panetti who “displayed ‘bizarre, ‘trance-like’ and ‘scary’ behavior throughout his trial. He asked nonsensical questions about Native Americans…and flipped a coin to decide whether to strike a potential juror.” (pp. 64-65)

“During the punishment phase, Mr. Panetti called only one witness, his standby counsel, before delivering an unintelligible punishment phase closing argument:

You know, just to touch on the spat and wasn’t cuffed, but I was bronc and Sheriff Kaiser and I had a talk, well, of the fact that I’m no longer American citizen, and because of my buckaroo case.  I believe city people love horses, too, and I don’t consider myself anything above or below anyone, but I do consider myself me, and when I made my last confession at Veterans Hospital to Father De la Garza, I wasn’t Catholic. (p. 30) 

Mr. Panetti announced that he would assume the personality of “Sarge” and recounted the gruesome details of the crime in the third person. He gestured as if pointing a rifle to the jury box and imitated the sound of shots being fired. As the filing explains, an attorney present at the trial recounts, “[One juror] told me that the goofy things that Scott said and did scared the jury.” (pp. 31-32)

In 2004, Texas tried to execute Mr. Panetti, but a federal judge court stayed the execution and the United States Supreme Court ultimately found the Fifth Circuit’s standard for determining competency to be executed unconstitutional in Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930 (2007). Notwithstanding that decision, Texas continued to contest Mr. Panetti’s competence to be executed. In 2013, the Fifth Circuit again found him competent to be executed – despite the District Court’s findings that he has a severe mental illness and suffers from paranoid delusions.

The first time Mr. Panetti showed signs of being afflicted with a psychotic disorder was in 1978, over 14 years before he shaved his head and killed his in-laws, Amanda and Joseph Alvarado.  During his multiple hospitalizations, doctors diagnosed him with chronic schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder.

In 1986, Mr. Panetti first succumbed to the delusion that he was engaged in spiritual warfare with Satan. In an affidavit supporting Mr. Panetti’s involuntarily commitment, his first wife described how he  was obsessed with the idea that the devil was in the house. He engaged in a series of bizarre behaviors to exorcize his home, including burying his furniture in the backyard because he thought the devil was in the furniture.

Mr. Panetti has a fixed delusion that his execution is being orchestrated by Satan, working through the State of Texas, to put an end to his preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He has not had a competency hearing in nearly seven years.

Detailed information about Mr. Panetti’s history of severe mental illness can be found in timeline starting in 1978 that shows how Mr. Panetti’s mental health degenerated over the years, including how in 1986, the Social Security Administration made a determination that Mr. Panetti was so disabled from schizophrenia that he was entitled to government benefits:

In addition to the leading mental health organizations, Mr. Panetti has received worldwide support for clemency, including from over 55 prominent Evangelical Christians and 7 retired and active Bishops from the United Methodist Church and other faith leaders; former U.S. Representative Ron Paul; former Texas Governor Mark White, 10 Texas state legislators; nearly 30 former prosecutors and U.S. Attorneys General;  Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, the American Bar Association, and the European Union, which represents twenty-eight nations.

Additionally, a petition started by Mr. Panetti’s sister, Vicki Panetti, has been signed by over 80,000 concerned individuals.

If his execution date is not withdrawn, he will go to the execution chamber convinced that he is being put to death for preaching the Gospels, not for the murder of his wife’s parents, and the retributive goal of capital punishment will not be served.

To access legal filings, the clemency petition, the letters supporting clemency, additional documents and case resources, including a video, please go to:

To speak with Mr. Panetti’s attorneys, Kathryn Kase of Texas Defender Service and Gregory Wiercioch of Texas Defender Service and the University of Wisconsin Law School, or if you would like to speak with mental health experts or signatories to the clemency letters, please contact Laura Burstein at or 202-626-6868 (o) or 202-669-3411 (c).