A federal appeals court is considering whether a condemned killer in Texas should be spared from execution Wednesday so he can undergo new mental competency examinations to support arguments he's too delusional to understand why he's being punished.
Scott Panetti, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia 14 years before killing his estranged wife's parents, "stands on the razor's edge of competency" and needs psychological evaluations to illustrate that his severe mental illness has worsened since he last was examined seven years ago, the prisoner's attorneys argued to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
State attorneys contended Panetti's condition "has not markedly changed" and he should not be given a reprieve from lethal injection.
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No court has ruled Panetti mentally incompetent or insane.
The 56-year-old Wisconsin native was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1978 and had been hospitalized more than a dozen times for treatment before fatally shooting Joe and Amanda Alvarado at their home in the Texas Hill Country in 1992.
Panetti's attorneys also have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the broader question of whether executing people who have mental illnesses violates the constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment.
In 1986, the high court ruled states may not execute killers whose insanity means they can't understand why they're being put to death. In 2002, the justices prohibited the execution of the mentally impaired. Five years later, ruling on an appeal from Panetti, the court said mentally ill condemned prisoners could be put to death if they have a factual and rational understanding of why they're being punished.
Panetti has insisted Satan is working through Texas prison officials to execute him to keep him from preaching the Gospel.
Panetti's delusions "have become more pervasive," according to one of his attorneys, Gregory Wiercioch, who met with the inmate last week.
Wiercioch said Panetti told him devices implanted in his teeth by prison system dentists were sending command messages to his brain, that in the sixth grade he had a fight with future President Barack Obama at a Chicago museum and that his tooth told him to write a letter of apology to Obama.
Ellen Stewart-Klein, an assistant Texas attorney general, told the Supreme Court on Tuesday that records failed to support claims that Panetti's mental condition had deteriorated and that some of his odd behavior could be deliberate.
"Panetti's mental health condition has long been exaggerated to his benefit and he continues this long established pattern here," Stewart-Klein said.
At trial, Panetti acted as his own attorney, testified as alternate personality "Sarge" to describe the Alvarado slayings and tried to subpoena Jesus Christ, the pope and the late President John F. Kennedy. Panetti wore a purple cowboy outfit, including a big cowboy hat, and largely ignored a standby attorney the judge appointed to assist him.