incompetency Panetti severe mental illness

Fifth Circuit to Hold Oral Argument Re: Scott Panetti’s Incompetency for Execution

This week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit will consider the case of Scott Panetti, who faced execution last year by the State of Texas despite his long, documented history of severe mental illness. Panetti holds a fixed delusional belief that the State seeks to execute him to prevent him from preaching the gospel.

On Wednesday, September 23, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit will hold oral argument in the case of Scott Panetti, who has been on Texas’ death row since 1995 and faced several execution dates despite his nearly 40 year documented history of severe mental illness. The Fifth Circuit stayed Panetti’s execution on December 3, 2014 to further review the issues surrounding his competency.

The court will consider Panetti’s motion to reverse a federal district court ruling and return his case to the lower court with orders to appoint counsel, authorize funds for investigative and expert assistance, and provide counsel with adequate time to prepare a habeas corpus petition raising the claim that Panetti is currently incompetent to be executed.

Panetti has not been evaluated by any mental health experts since late 2007 and the last evidentiary hearing held on his competency took place in February 2008. A review of the most recent records shows that he has deteriorated since that time.

An amicus brief submitted earlier this year on behalf of national conservative movement leaders, some who support the death penalty and others who do not, stated they “are united […] in their belief that the execution of Scott Panetti would serve no penological purpose and would in no way promote public safety. Rather than serving as a proportionate response to murder, the execution of Panetti would only undermine the public’s faith in a fair and moral justice system. And it would be a glaring and unwelcome example of excessive governmental power.”

In an opinion editorial published last week in the Dallas Morning News, national conservative leader Richard A. Viguerie, one of the signatories on the amicus brief, decried any attempt to execute Panetti as “a moral failure for conservatives”.  Viguerie writes:

As a conservative, I believe putting Panetti, a severely mentally ill man whose condition has only deteriorated on death row, to death would be senseless. He is not competent to be executed. Instead, he should spend the rest of his days under confinement — a common-sense solution that would keep the public safe and respect human dignity.

Read the full piece here.

An editorial by the Houston Chronicle (“End executions,” September 16, 2015) noted similarities between Panetti’s trial and that of James Calvert, who faces the death penalty in Smith County and who, until last week, had been allowed to represent himself in his trial.  In his trial 20 years ago, Panetti represented himself wearing a cowboy costume and attempted to call over 200 people to the witness stand, including the Pope, John F. Kennedy, Jesus Christ and his own alter ego.  The editorial observes that “Knowing what we know now, it is hard to claim that Panetti received a fair trial or adequate representation.”

Read the full editorial.  You can follow developments in Calvert’s trial on Twitter, using the hashtag #Calvert.

Additional resources and background information

The Amicus Brief from National Conservative Leaders, filed February 4, 2015, can be accessed here:

Mr. Panetti’s Supplemental Brief at the Fifth Circuit, filed January 28, 2015, can be accessed here:

Mr. Panetti’s Opening Brief at the Fifth Circuit, filed November 30, 2014, can be accessed here:

For more information about Mr. Panetti’s case, please go to

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 at