UPDATED: 5th Circuit Grants Stay of Execution for Severely Mentally Ill Texas Inmate

On November 12, more than two dozen former state and federal judges, prosecutors and other legal practitioners joined former Texas Governor Mark White in calling on the current governor and Texas Board of Pardons and Parole to grant clemency to Scott Panetti, a mentally ill death row inmate scheduled for execution in Texas on December 3.

In a letter organized by The Constitution Project, the group wrote to Governor Rick Perry and the state’s parole board, “Many of us have prosecuted serious crimes, including cases where the death penalty was imposed.  Although Mr. Panetti committed a tragic crime, because of his severe mental illness and the uncertainty of his capital trial, at which he represented himself, we believe the most fitting punishment in his case is life in prison.”

Panetti has suffered from serious mental illness for over 30 years. He was hospitalized more than a dozen times for psychosis and delusions in the 14 years leading up to the crime for which he was convicted and sentenced to death.  At his trial, he represented himself wearing a purple cowboy costume and attempted to call more than 200 witnesses, including John F. Kennedy, the Pope, and Jesus Christ.

In a separate statement, White said, ““I know very well that in so many instances, there are incredibly close and difficult calls that have to be made to either allow or prohibit the death penalty from being carried out.  But Scott Panetti’s plea for clemency is no such case.  He is a severely mentally ill man.  His trial was a sham.  And executing him would say far more about us than it would about the man we are attempting to kill.”  White oversaw 19 executions while serving as governor of Texas.

Religious leaders, mental health organizations and experts, the American Bar Association and others also petitioned the parole board for clemency.  More information about Panetti’s case, including legal documents and complete listing of the clemency letters, is available from Texas Defender Service.  In addition, Panetti’s sister started an online petition to call attention to the case.

Panetti was sentenced to death for the 1992 murder of his parents-in-law, which he committed in front of his estranged wife and their three-year-old child.

White is co-chair of The Constitution Project’s Death Penalty Committee, which released a comprehensive report on the administration of capital punishment in May.

UPDATE:  On December 3, just hours before his scheduled execution, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals granted a stay to Panetti pending further order of the court to allow it consider complex legal issues relating to the case.  The court indicated it would set a timeline for further proceedings.


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