Attorneys for Scott Panetti appeal to U.S. Supreme Court

For Immediate Release: December 1, 2014

Contact: Laura Burstein, 202-626-6868 (o); 202-669-3411 (c)
For More Information:

Schizophrenic TX Death Row Prisoner Appeals Constitutionality of Scheduled December 3rd Execution to the U.S. Supreme Court

Cites New Evidence of Emerging Consensus: Executing the Severely Mentally Ill Violates the Eighth Amendment’s Protection From Cruel and Unusual Punishment

(Washington, DC, December 1, 2014) Citing trends which demonstrate an emerging consensus against the use of capital punishment against people with severe mental illness, attorneys for Mr. Panetti today filed for a stay of execution at the U.S. Supreme Court, with a petition for a writ of certiorari challenging the constitutionality of Mr. Panetti’s execution. Mr. Panetti was diagnosed with schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder decades before the crime for which he is scheduled to be executed this Wednesday, December 3rd, in Texas.

Today’s cert petition argues that the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment includes a prohibition on executing persons with severe mental illness, like Mr. Panetti.

Today’s Petition for a Writ of Certiorari can be accessed here:

Today’s Motion for a Stay of Execution can be accessed here:

Also today, attorneys filed an Original Writ for Habeas Corpus, which can be accessed here:

Despite being a paranoid schizophrenic, Mr. Panetti represented himself at his capital murder trial in 1995. Wearing a Tom Mix-style 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.

“Mr. Panetti is a very sick man who has had schizophrenia for decades,” said Kathryn Kase, co-counsel for Mr Panetti, and Executive Director of the Texas Defender Service. “Mr. Panetti’s severe mental illness has caused concern among numerous judges who issued multiple powerful dissents last week and has galvanized extensive support for relief in his case from the mental health community. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, the American Psychiatric Association, Mental Health America, Disability Rights Texas and many others have expressed that no retributive or deterrent value is achieved by carrying out lethal injection against a man as sick as Scott Panetti. The widespread support for relief in this case includes not only the mental health community but also leading legal organizations, and others, and is supported by new information regarding sentencing practices, which clearly show a trend against using the death penalty when defendants have severe mental illness, as well as the universal opinion of mental health experts and polling data.”

A new nationwide poll, released today, states that American oppose the execution of the mentally ill by a 2-1 margin: (

On November 26th, three judges of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals wrote powerful dissents in favor of relief in the case, including Judge Tom Price who stated: “I would grant applicant’s motion for a stay of execution and would hold that his severe mental illness renders him categorically ineligible for the death penalty under the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

“It is inconceivable to me how the execution of a severely mentally ill person such as applicant would measurably advance the retribution and deterrence purposes purportedly served by the death penalty.

“I can imagine no rational reason for carving a line between the prohibition on the execution of a mentally retarded person or an insane person while permitting the execution of a severely mentally ill person. At a minimum, therefore, I would hold that the execution of a severely mentally ill person violates the Eighth Amendment of the federal Constitution.”

Judge Elsa Alcala, joined by Judge Cheryl Johnson found that Mr. Panetti had raised a “compelling argument” that the Eighth Amendment forbids the execution of the seriously mentally ill and that the majority had not given “greater consideration” to his argument. They would have stayed Mr. Panetti’s execution and permitted further briefing of the Eighth Amendment issue.

The CCA Order and Dissents can be accessed here:

Citing new research, the cert petition 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 “ death sentences were imposed in only 5 of 68 cases, a capital sentencing rate of 7.35%.” (p. 29)

Furthermore, “the last time a defendant adjudicated GBMI [guilty but mentally ill] was sentenced to death was at least 20 years ago,” (p. 30).

As the petition states, “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. 31)

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 issued policy statements recommending an outright ban on the death penalty for offenders with severe mental brain damage (dementia and traumatic brain injury) and a ban on the death penalty or offenders with severe mental illness whose condition diminished their responsibility for their crimes.” (pp. 31-32)

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (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.

The petition notes that “[i]mposition of the death penalty on people with severe mental illness, as with people with intellectual disability [who are protected from the death penalty], does not serve the two goals of deterrence and retribution because of their reduced moral culpability.” (p. 35)

Furthermore, the petition notes that the U.S. Supreme Court has “expressed concern that the cognitive limitations of the intellectually disabled, as manifested in a trial setting, may lead to the death penalty being ‘imposed in spite of factors which may call for a less severe penalty,'” (p. 36) including a greater chance of false confessions, the decreased ability of defendants with severe mental illness to meaningfully assist counsel, being problematic witnesses and the fact that their demeanor can create an impression of lack of remorse. According to the petition, “these very same factors – also present among the population of the severely mentally ill – may also result in the death penalty being imposed upon a severely mentally ill defendant despite the presence of other mitigating factors that call for a less severe penalty.” (p. 37)

This was certainly the case with Mr. Panetti who “displayed ‘bizarre, 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.” (p. 37)

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. 21)


Three-Decade History of Severe Psychosis and Delusions

Mr. Panetti has suffered from extreme mental illness for over 30 years. He was hospitalized a dozen times for psychosis and delusions in the six years leading up to the crime for which he was convicted and sentenced to death.

The first time Mr. Panetti showed signs of being afflicted with a psychotic disorder was in 1978, over 14 years before the crime. During his multiple hospitalizations, doctors diagnosed him with chronic schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder and proscribed antipsychotic medication.

In 1986, Mr. Panetti first succumbed to the delusion that he was engaged in spiritual warfare with Satan. In an affidavit his first wife signed to have him involuntarily committed, she testified that 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.

Two years before the crime for which he was convicted and sentenced to death, Mr. Panetti was involuntarily committed for homicidal behavior and was found to be suffering from delusions and psychotic religiosity.

The crime for which he was convicted and sentenced to death also had the hallmarks of a severely disturbed mind. While off his antipsychotic medication, Mr. Panetti shaved his head and dressed in camouflage fatigues before going to his in-laws’ home and committing the offense for which he was convicted and sentenced to death.

Detailed information about Mr. Panetti’s medical history can be found in this mental illness 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:

Mr. Panetti’s Trial: ‘A Miserable Spectacle’

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, Mr. Panetti was found guilty and sentenced to death.

Mr. Panetti’s statements in court, at both the guilt and sentencing phase, were bizarre and incomprehensible. He took the witnesses stand and testified about his own life in excessive and irrelevant detail.

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 (visibly upsetting the jurors) and matter- of-factly imitated the sound of shots being fired.

Fixed Delusion that Texas is Trying to Kill Him for Preaching the Gospel

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.

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.

Widespread Support for Clemency

On November 12, 2014, Mr. Panetti’s attorneys filed a clemency petition with Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles along with letters supporting clemency from the leading Texas and national mental health organizations and professionals such as the American Psychiatric Association, Mental Health America and Disability Rights Texas; criminal justice and legal professionals including former Texas Governor Mark White, state Attorneys General and former judges and prosecutors; 55 Evangelical leaders from Texas and nationally and 7 retired and active Bishops from the United Methodist Church and other faith leaders; Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation and the American Bar Association, among others.

On November 18, 2014, worldwide support for Scott Panetti reached a groundswell with new calls for clemency from prominent individuals and organizations from across Texas and the world, including the nation’s largest grassroots advocacy organization on mental illness, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI); NAMI’s Texas affiliate; ten legislators from Texas; former U.S. Representative Ron Paul; several more Evangelical Christians; and the European Union, which represents twenty-eight nations.

The clemency petition can be accessed through Texas Defender Service’s web page on the case:

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

Additionally, a petition started by Mr. Panetti’s sister, Vicki Panetti, has been signed by over 90,000 concerned individuals.

To speak with Mr. Panetti’s attorneys, Kathryn Kase of Texas Defender Service and Greg Wiercioch of Texas Defender Service and University of Wisconsin Law School, or if you would like to speak with mental health and other experts, please contact Laura Burstein, Laura.Burstein@Squirepb.com202-626-6868 (o); 202-669-3411 (c).