Wearing a cowboy costume and a purple bandana, Scott Panetti defended himself at his capital trial in Texas without counsel, where he tried to call the Pope, J.F.K, and Jesus Christ to the witness stand. In Tennessee, Richard Taylor represented himself in his capital trial wearing sunglasses to keep out the police voices and sat completely silent through his trial. Guy LeGrande served as his own lawyer at his capital trial in North Carolina, wearing a Superman shirt and telling the jury to kiss his “natural black ass” in closing argument.
All three were sentenced to death.
Each of these cases exemplifies a broken system. All three defendants suffer from schizophrenia, one of the most serious and debilitating mental illnesses known to humanity, and are delusional and out of touch with reality. Symptoms of schizophrenia, including paranoia and grandiosity, make it all too common for mentally ill defendants to fire their lawyers and try to represent themselves at trial. None of these three men should have been allowed to defend himself, and none should have faced the death penalty. Capital punishment for individuals with serious mental illness serves no valid purpose.
For my client Richard Taylor, in Tennessee, and Guy LeGrande, in North Carolina, the courts ultimately intervened. On appeal, the Tennessee court threw out Mr. Taylor’s death sentence, and he was resentenced to a life. The North Carolina court found that Mr. LeGrande was too delusional to be executed in a competency hearing that was held after his execution date was scheduled.
Scott Panetti has not been as lucky.
Mr. Panetti is scheduled to be executed on December 3, 2014, despite the overwhelming evidence that he is seriously mentally ill and cannot understand the reasons for his execution. Mr. Panetti believes that Satan is working through the State of Texas to execute him for preaching the word of Jesus Christ. He has no rational understanding of the real relationship between his crime and the ultimate punishment awaiting him.
Mr. Panetti’s history of mental illness is well documented and began fourteen years before the capital offense. He buried furniture in his backyard, believing it was possessed by the devil. He was hospitalized over a dozen times, and was involuntarily committed while suffering from delusions two years before his crime. Despite the extensive documentation of his long standing mental illness, the Texas courts nonetheless sided with the single witness to deny Mr. Panetti’s mental illness, an expert witness with slim credentials, hired from Florida, whose testimony revealed his lack of familiarity with Mr. Panetti’s mental health history.
Most recently, the Texas courts failed to give him even a current competency hearing. The last time the courts assessed Mr. Panetti’s understanding of reality was over seven years ago. Nonetheless, Texas has eagerly plowed ahead with its December execution date.
The courts’ failure is even more vexing because Mr. Panetti actually won his case in the United States Supreme Court – earning a legal standard that should have guaranteed his safety from execution. Indeed, the Panetti standard was what the North Carolina court used to determine that Guy LeGrande was too mentally ill to be executed. It is a cruel twist that Mr. Panetti, whose case legal scholars and practitioners around the country see as the definition of whom is too mentally ill to be executed, nonetheless is scheduled to be executed.
The execution of Mr. Panetti accomplishes no reasonable goal. Executing someone who does not understand the reason for his punishment violates not only the Constitution, but basic decency.
Stand against this outrage by demanding that Governor Rick Perry stop Mr. Panetti’s execution by commuting his death sentence to life in prison, here.