Scott Coomer / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / AP

Stay of execution denied for man described as severely mentally ill

Scott Panetti is due to be executed on Dec. 3 despite insistence from his attorneys that he has no understanding of why

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has denied a stay of execution for Scott Panetti, a death row inmate whose attorneys contend is so delusional he cannot understand why he was convicted and believes his death sentence is part of "spiritual warfare."

Panetti, 56, was recently scheduled for lethal injection in Huntsville, Texas, on Dec. 3, prompting his attorneys to file for a stay on the grounds that their client’s psychological condition had deteriorated significantly since his last competency hearing in 2007.

But in a 5-4 vote, the Court of Criminal Appeals ruled on Tuesday to deny the motion on jurisdictional grounds.

Panetti, a Wisconsin native, was convicted of fatally shooting his in-laws, Joe and Amanda Alvarado, at their Fredericksburg, Texas, home 22 years ago in front of his estranged wife and young children. His wife was living with her parents and a week earlier obtained a court order to keep Panetti away.

Panetti has a long history of mental problems that predates the killings, including being hospitalized for mental illness 13 times. His case has been to the U.S. Supreme Court at least three times, most recently in October, when the justices refused to review his latest appeal.

State attorneys have argued Panetti exaggerates some of his symptoms to avoid execution.

His trial judge assigned Panetti a standby attorney after he chose to be his own lawyer at his 1995 trial, where he wore a purple cowboy outfit, flipped a coin to select a juror and wanted to subpoena the pope, Jesus Christ and John F. Kennedy as witnesses.

A day before he was to die in 2007, the Supreme Court stopped Panetti's scheduled execution for further review by lower courts but stopped short of overturning his sentence.

That decision, Panetti vs. Quarterman, ruled that it was not enough for a defendant to be aware he was going to be executed — a standard Panetti satisfies — but that he must also have a “rational understanding” of why he was sentenced to death. In other words, the retributive principle underpinning capital punishment might have no relevance in the case of someone as severely mentally ill as Panetti.

But the court did not set specific guidelines for whether that condition applied to Panetti, who has said he believes the true reason for his execution was “spiritual warfare” between “the demons and the forces of the darkness and God and the angels and the forces of light.”

Kathryn Kase, one of the defense attorneys, reacted to Tuesday’s ruling in a statement, noting that her client’s mental state has only declined further. Panetti is “hearing voices, believes that a listening device has been implanted in his tooth and that the state wants him to ‘shut up’ about corruption on death row and stop him from preaching the Gospel.”

“Despite these facts,” she wrote, “Texas continues to pursue the execution of a man with an incurable, devastating mental illness that profoundly affected the crime, his trial and his death sentence.”

In a strongly worded dissent to Tuesday’s decision, Judge Elsa Alcala wrote, “At worst, this court’s decision will result in the irreversible and constitutionally impermissible execution of a mentally incompetent person.”

Capital punishment remains legal in 32 states, though many of those have placed a moratorium on the practice. Texas has executed more people than any other state — more than 500 since 1978.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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