Scott Coomer / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / AP Photo

Attorneys petition Supreme Court to stay mentally ill man’s execution

Convicted murderer set to be given lethal injection on Wednesday despite not understanding why, lawyers say

Lawyers for a death row inmate who believes his upcoming execution is part of a holy war between demons and angels have launched a last-ditch effort to save his life.

Texas is due to execute 56-year-old Scott Panetti on Wednesday for murdering his mother-in-law and father-in-law.

But his attorneys argue that Panetti should not be executed, on the grounds that he is too mentally ill to understand the reason he is being put to death. They claim that he suffers from delusions, citing his apparent belief that his punishment is part of a religious fight pitting “the demons and the forces of the darkness” against “God and the angels and the forces of light.”

His attorneys are engaged in an eleventh-hour bid to save his life. On Monday lawyers with the Texas Defender Service petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for a stay of execution, arguing that their client is not mentally competent.

“There is no doubt that Mr. Panetti was a severely mentally [ill] person before, during and after the crime for which he has been sentenced to death,” wrote the defendant’s counsel in their motion for a stay of execution. “And Mr. Panetti’s mental state has further deteriorated since his last evaluation in 2007.”

The same day the motion was filed, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously rejected a plea to delay his execution. His attorneys have also requested a 30-day stay of execution from Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

Panetti’s mental fitness to be executed has already been the subject of Supreme Court review, in the 2007 case Panetti v. QuartermanAt the time, the court ruled that Panetti could be spared the death penalty if he was found to lack a “rational understanding” of the reasons for his execution. The case then got bounced back to the lower courts, with Texas maintaining that Panetti is sane enough to understand the nature of his punishment and why it is taking place. Prosecutors contend that he deliberately plays up his mental illness to suggest otherwise.

The Panetti v. Quarterman ruling expanded on the 1986 Ford v. Wainwright decision, in which justices found that death row inmates have the right to be psychologically evaluated before being put to death. In an opinion concurring with the majority ruling, Justice Lewis F. Powell wrote that it was unconstitutional to execute “those who are unaware of the punishment they are about to suffer and why they are to suffer it."

After the 2007 ruling, awareness of the punishment was no longer enough: States could execute only inmates who passed the rational understanding test.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, said the Supreme Court’s new standard requires a more thorough screening of psychological fitness.

“They said it’s not just a formulaic evaluation — you should look at his whole history to see if he does have a rational understanding of why he’s about to be executed,” he said. Under Ford v. Wainwright“you just need to determine whether the defendant knows that he’s being executed and that the execution is a response to the crime he committed,” he said.

The exemption applies, said Dieter, because capital punishment for the obviously insane would not function effectively as retribution or have any meaningful deterrent effect.

“There’s really no purpose in doing it to somebody who doesn’t know what’s happening to him,” he said. “You’re not deterring people like him, because they don’t understand.”

The still vaguely defined scope of the reasonable understanding standard is getting another test in Indiana, where a Superior County Court judge recently ruled that convicted murderer Michael Overstreet is not competent to be executed because he apparently doesn’t understand that the execution would result in his death. A psychiatrist told the court that Overstreet believes himself to be comatose and remains convinced the execution would not actually kill him.

The Indiana attorney general’s office said it was considering an appeal in a statement released shortly after the verdict. A representative for the attorney general did not return a request for comment, and Overstreet’s attorney was unavailable for comment as of press time.

Meanwhile, a poll published last week by the liberal-leaning Public Policy Polling found that 58 percent of respondents oppose the use of the death penalty for mentally ill prisoners, while 28 percent condone it and 14 percent are undecided; a 2002 Gallup poll found 75 percent in opposition and 19 percent in favor.

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