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Will Texas Execute a Schizophrenic Man Who Tried to Subpoena Jesus, JFK & the Pope at His Own Trial?

StoryDecember 02, 2014
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We look at the case of a Texas prisoner scheduled to be executed Wednesday despite the wide belief he is mentally ill. Scott Panetti was convicted of killing his wife’s parents in 1992, more than a decade after he was first diagnosed with schizophrenia. His mental health history until that point included hallucinations that prompted his dismissal from the Navy, and 14 hospitalizations for schizophrenia and depression, often under a court order. His previous wife divorced him after he buried their furniture, because he said it was possessed by the devil, and also nailed his curtains shut. Panetti’s murder trial drew headlines when he was allowed to represent himself after dismissing his court-appointed attorney. He dressed as a cowboy in a purple suit and a hat, and the witnesses he tried to subpoena in his defense included John F. Kennedy, the pope and Jesus Christ. At one point, he assumed his alternate personality of “Sarge” and testified in the third person about carrying out the murders. Then in 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Panetti lacked the understanding of why he was being put to death, and asked a lower court to re-evaluate whether he was sane enough to execute. But the courts accepted the argument from the state’s lawyers that Panetti was faking his illness and reinstated his death sentence. We speak to Panetti’s attorney, Kathryn Kase, and Ron Honberg, national director for policy and legal affairs of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: We turn now to a Texas execution that’s attracted international attention because the man set to die is believed to be mentally ill. Scott Panetti was convicted of killing his wife’s parents in 1992, more than a decade after he was first diagnosed with schizophrenia. His mental health history until that point included hallucinations that prompted his dismissal from the Navy, and 14 hospitalizations for schizophrenia and depression, often under a court order. His previous wife divorced him after he buried their furniture, because he said it was possessed by the devil, and also nailed his curtains shut.

Panetti’s murder trial drew headlines when he was allowed to represent himself after dismissing his court-appointed attorney. He dressed as a cowboy in a purple suit and hat, and the witnesses he tried to subpoena in his defense included John F. Kennedy, the pope and Jesus Christ. At one point, he assumed his alternate personality of “Sarge” and testified in the third person about how he carried out the murders. After being sentenced to die, Panetti said he believed he was being executed not for the killings, but for preaching the gospel to his fellow death row prisoners.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott Panetti’s family sat through his trial, when he was allowed to represent himself, and passed him notes to try to help. This is his father, Jack Panetti, his former lawyer, Meridel Solbrig, and his sister, Vicki Panetti, speaking in a 2007 video made for the Texas Defender Service.

JACK PANETTI: We’d send him a note and say, “Show those medical records.” You know, he was up there by himself. I said, “Show the medical records.” Well, Scott would be up scribbling, drawing pictures on them. And then he would finally get it up to the judge. The judge said, “I can’t accept that. You scribbled on it,” throw it out.

MERIDEL SOLBRIG: The trial of Scott Panetti was, to me, a circus. And I think that other people saw it that way, as well.

VICKI PANETTI: He was more obsessed with how he looked and his fantasy of being his own lawyer in a 1930s cowboy costume than what reality was. And that was that he was under trial for murder. He didn’t understand that.

MERIDEL SOLBRIG: It would have been like an old Hollywood cowboy movie. It’s nothing that anybody would wear to anything other than a costume party. It was bizarre.

AARON MATÉ: In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled Panetti lacked the understanding of why he was being put to death, and asked the lower court to re-evaluate whether he was sane enough to execute. But the courts accepted the argument from the state’s lawyers that Panetti was faking his illness, and reinstated his death sentence. Now he is set to die Wednesday at 6:00 p.m. On Monday, the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole refused his clemency request, and his lawyers have asked Governor Rick Perry to issue a stay of execution.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we go to Houston, Texas, where we’re joined by Panetti’s attorney, Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service. Panetti would be the 11th prisoner executed in Texas this year, the most of any state. Missouri is close behind with eight men put to death this year.

Talk more about your case and what you are calling for right now in the—as a result of the execution being set for Wednesday evening of Scott Panetti, Kathryn Kase.

KATHRYN KASE: We have three efforts going on simultaneously. We’re in the Fifth Circuit, where we are seeking time and resources to litigate Scott’s competence to be executed, because his psychiatric condition continues to deteriorate day by day. We’re also in the U.S. Supreme Court, where we are arguing that it is unconstitutional to execute the seriously mentally ill. And finally, we have a 30-day reprieve request before the governor, Rick Perry, saying that we would like additional time to, again, litigate Scott’s competence to be executed.

AARON MATÉ: Could we back up and go to the trial? Can you describe the scene in the courtroom and explain how was it that he was allowed to represent himself?

KATHRYN KASE: This is a question that no one can answer sufficiently. Scott was wearing a cowboy outfit during this trial. His jeans were tucked into his boots. He had on a TV Western cowboy shirt, a purple bandanna around his neck, and he was waving a cowboy Bible. He was representing himself because before the trial began he became extremely paranoid, he was off his medication, and he believed that his lawyers were in league against him, so he fired them, and he told the judge that he wanted to represent himself. Oddly, though, the judge allowed this, after having sat through two competency trials and knowing Scott’s 12-year history at the time of chronic paranoid schizophrenia. To this day, there has not been an adequate explanation by the Texas justice system as to how this man was permitted to fight for his life on his own in a death penalty trial.

AMY GOODMAN: Kathryn Kase, talk about the history of mentally ill prisoners and what kind of precedent this sets.

KATHRYN KASE: With Scott’s execution, Texas will cross an irrevocable moral line. The state of Texas, to my knowledge, has never executed, post-Furman, anyone who was—who had a history of severe mental illness and who represented himself at his death penalty trial. Now, the state did execute Kelsey Patterson in 2004. Mr. Patterson also had a history of severe psychosis, and the Board of Pardons and Paroles, in contrast to Scott’s case, recommended that Mr. Patterson’s sentence be commuted; however, the Texas governor, Rick Perry, let that execution occur. And on the gurney, as the state prepared to lethally inject him, Mr. Patterson told onlookers that, in sum and substance, that he was the warden and that the correctional officers should get their warden off the gurney. He went to his death babbling and, I’m convinced, incompetent. So, Texas is not exactly covered with glory in its efforts to protect the mentally ill from the criminal justice system.

AARON MATÉ: And what is Scott Panetti’s current mental state? Is he taking any medication? What is his situation?

KATHRYN KASE: If you’re on death row in Texas, you don’t really get treatment unless you are so ill that the state can’t ignore it, such as the situation with Andre Thomas, who only was sent to the Jester IV psychiatric unit in the prison system after he plucked out his remaining eye and swallowed it on death row. So, Scott Panetti has been unmedicated largely for 20 years on Texas death row. And today, his condition continues to deteriorate. My co-counsel, Greg Wiercioch of the University of Wisconsin School of Law, have gone—has gone to see him regularly, as have I, and Scott continues to be delusional, and he’s hearing voices. And what’s worse is, he’s trying to hide that. He knows that when he hears voices, that something is wrong. And his response is to read scripture and to believe that his obligation as a good Christian is to preach the Bible and set an example for other people on death row, because that’s why, he believes, he’s being executed. It doesn’t have anything to do, in his mind, with the deaths of his in-laws, Joe and Amanda Alvarado.

AMY GOODMAN: His former wife, the daughter of his in-laws, who he is convicted of killing, she is calling for him not to be executed?

KATHRYN KASE: I am not in contact with her, but I do know that after he was convicted and sentenced to death, she submitted a sworn affidavit to the courts where she said, “I know that Scott is mentally ill and [he] should not be put to death” for this. So there was recognition on her part, as someone who is the daughter of the victims, that the criminal justice system should not respond with the death penalty. And also, Sonja Alvarado, sadly, was present when Scott Panetti killed her parents. So, she was in the best position to say what should happen to him. That has been ignored.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re also joined right now from Washington, D.C., by Ron Honberg, national director for policy and legal affairs at the National Alliance on Mental Illness. His editorial, just published in the L.A. Times, is headlined “Texas execution of a severely mentally ill man would be an outrage.” Can you talk about the significance of the possible execution of Scott Panetti, how the National Alliance on the Mentally Ill is dealing with this?

RON HONBERG: Thank you, yes. The Supreme Court has already banned the execution of people with intellectual disabilities, mental retardation, and juveniles. And they did so because they recognized that the brains of individuals who fall into those categories are impaired. And the Supreme Court, while not going quite that far with mental illness, has said very clearly that if someone is so delusional that they don’t have a firm grasp on reality at the time they commit their crime, that person should not be executed. That should be recognized as a mitigating factor. And yet, Texas has ignored the evidence, continuous evidence for over 30 years, that Scott Panetti is highly delusional due to his schizophrenia.

And this is not a recent phenomenon with Scott Panetti. He was hospitalized 10 times prior to his crime. In the course of 12 years, he was hospitalized 10 times. He has been consistently delusional and irrational, really, since the crime. This has not changed. Every evaluation that’s been done of him establishes that. It’s not been, frankly, controverted by the prosecution. And yet, despite the Supreme Court’s decision, Texas is proceeding with executing him, and that would be just a gross injustice. No matter how you feel about the death penalty, people in this country recognize that it should be used only for the worst of the worst, with no mitigating factors, and here this case has all sorts of mitigating factors.

AMY GOODMAN: The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected Panetti’s appeal Tuesday in a five-to-four vote. But the statements from the dissenting judges suggest his case is prompting serious debate, even among Texas’s conservative judges. In her dissent, Republican Judge Elsa Alcala said a decision to execute Panetti, quote, “will result in the irreversible and constitutionally impermissible execution of a mentally incompetent person.” Another dissenting voice, Judge Tom Price, wrote, quote, “We are the guardians of the process … Based on my specialized knowledge of this process, I now conclude that the death penalty as a form of punishment should be abolished because the execution of individuals does not appear to measurably advance the retribution and deterrence purposes served by the death penalty; the life without parole option adequately protects society at large in the same way as the death penalty punishment option; and the risk of executing an innocent person for a capital murder is unreasonably high.” That’s what Judge Price wrote while dissenting in the decision to execute Scott Panetti. Kathryn Kase, your response?

KATHRYN KASE: I think that Judge Price is in the same group with the outpouring across the country regarding Scott Panetti’s execution. We’ve had evangelical Christian leaders, national leaders, come forward and say that this execution should not occur, that Scott Panetti should be protected as a result of his mental illness. The American Psychiatric Association, NAMI, Mental Health America have come forward, but also political conservatives have spoken out. And I think that this shows that there has been an emerging consensus that the seriously mentally ill, like Scott Panetti, should not be executed. And this is an issue that the Supreme Court is going to have to confront, certainly with Scott Panetti’s case, but also with the cases of other seriously mentally ill who are on death row around this country.

AARON MATÉ: Ron Honberg, what is it that you think people need to understand most about people who suffer from schizophrenia, whether they’re in prison or on the outside? What do you think are the key issues that people might not know about schizophrenia?

RON HONBERG: OK, well, first of all, most people with schizophrenia are not violent. And with treatment, many people with schizophrenia can live productive, meaningful lives, and do live productive, meaningful lives. But what people who have not experienced the terrifying symptoms of schizophrenia don’t understand—it’s a hard thing to really understand unless you’ve experienced it—is that while schizophrenia may not impact on intelligence, it impacts on one’s very perception of reality, and that the voices and delusions, you know, the hallucinations that people experience, while to somebody not experiencing them may seem nonsensical, are very, very real to those individuals. And the more we can understand that, the more compassionately we can respond to people experiencing those symptoms, and frankly, the more we can fix the broken mental health system in this country, because it’s oftentimes almost impossible to get services until you are in crisis. That would be akin to waiting ’til somebody has a heart attack to treat them. The more we can fix that, the better off people are going to be, the more people that will recover, and, certainly, you know, the relatively rare number of cases that lead to violence will be decreased. It will also, frankly, also significantly reduce the numbers of people with mental illness who are in our jails and prisons in this country. Very tragically, jails and prisons have become the de facto mental health treatment system. There are far more people in jails and prisons in this country with serious mental illnesses, with schizophrenia, than there are in hospitals or in community programs.

AMY GOODMAN: What about that issue of the jails, the prisons of the United States becoming the warehouses of the mentally ill?

RON HONBERG: It’s, I think, one of the great tragedies of modern time. It is—it’s the worst possible place that someone who is experiencing these kind of serious symptoms can be in. It only makes the symptoms worse. Most people eventually are released, and they’re not in any position to re-enter communities. And then, when they re-enter communities, the services that they need are not available to them. The one positive development that I see happening is that I think there’s increased recognition of this, and Kathryn mentioned that there have been conservative voices that have been raised in objection to Scott Panetti being executed. There’s also been a groundswell of conservative sentiment for putting more resources into treatment for people so that they don’t end up in jail and prison. Why? Because it’s very expensive to keep people incarcerated, and it is also, from a public safety standpoint, a very bad thing to do.

AARON MATÉ: Kathryn Kase, the clemency petition for Panetti that you submitted to the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole has received support from conservatives, like former Texas Congressmember Ron Paul. Just last year, Paul endorsed a new advocacy group, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, saying, quote, “I believe that support for the death penalty is inconsistent with libertarianism and traditional conservatism.” Then in November, Paul wrote, quote, “In order to be considered competent for execution, Mr. Panetti needs to understand the reason for his execution. He believes that he is being put to death for preaching the Gospel, not for the murder of his wife’s parents. The circumstances of this case present a situation where execution does not serve the state of Texas.” What about this, Mr. Panetti receiving some unlikely political support from the likes of Ron Paul?

KATHRYN KASE: What this shows is that there is an emerging awareness around the country, even among political conservatives who I think most people would say, “Oh, they’re strongly in favor of the death penalty.” But this emerging consensus shows that there’s great concern about who we use the death penalty against. And certainly, no one asks to be diagnosed with schizophrenia. It is an incurable brain disease. Nobody asks, as has occurred with Scott Panetti, to be poorly controlled on medication. During Scott Panetti’s life, during the years when he repeatedly sought treatment, he was on some fairly heavy anti-psychotic medication, but he still experienced symptoms. Nobody would ask for that. And I think what we’re seeing, among conservatives, among Christian evangelicals, among many people around the country, is that people with serious mental illness who become involved in the criminal justice system are less culpable, and therefore deserving of more protection from the system. The system has failed Scott Panetti and his family, because it has failed to protect him. It failed to protect him from himself when he represented himself at trial.

AMY GOODMAN: Kathryn Kase, we’re going to have to leave it there, attorney for Scott Panetti, director of the Texas Defender Service. And Ron Honberg, thanks for joining us, national director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

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