Scott Panetti - Texas

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Scott Panetti - Texas

Post  Jennie on Wed Jun 18, 2008 7:24 pm

Austin judge finds inmate sane enough for execution----More appeals are
likely in the landmark case

For 15 years, Scott Panetti has been Example No. 1 of the problems that
result when mental illness crosses paths with the criminal justice system.

They were evident at his capital murder trial, when he represented himself
and dressed up in a purple cowboy suit, making a bad joke of sober
proceedings when he subpoenaed JFK and Jesus Christ. And they were just as
apparent years later when the state tried to execute Panetti, only to see
appeals courts step in and grapple with the question of whether he was too
crazy to kill.

Now an Austin federal judge has decided that Panetti, convicted by a Kerr
County jury of killing his in-laws in 1992, may not be quite as sick as
advertised and likely has tried to manipulate doctors assigned to
investigate his mental state.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks, who conducted a hearing on Panetti's
sanity in February, concluded that he does not deserve the protection of
the courts at least not in his current state.

"If any mentally ill person is competent to be executed for his crime,
this record establishes it is Scott Panetti," Sparks concluded in his
62-page opinion.

A year ago, Panetti's lawyers were celebrating a decision by the U.S.
Supreme Court that declared Texas' standard for deciding competency for
execution was so narrow as to be almost meaningless.

Expanding on its 1986 ruling in Ford v. Wainwright, which made it unlawful
to execute the incompetent, the high court said a defendant had to have a
"rational understanding" of why he was going to be put to death.

Panetti's lead counsel, Greg Wiercioch, all but said his death row days
were numbered.

"Today the Supreme Court recognized that executing Scott Panetti would be
a mindless, meaningless and miserable spectacle," Wiercioch said.

His assumption was that any court ordered to review Panetti's case in
light of the Supreme Court's ruling which required that defendants have
more than just a technical understanding why they were being put to death
would see how sick he is and spare him the needle.

Malingering suspected

Sparks, however, did nothing of the sort.

While acknowledging that Panetti is seriously mentally ill, Sparks,
however, seized on the opinion of three doctors hired by the state who
suspected malingering and found behavior inconsistent with previous
diagnoses of schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder.

Sparks was also persuaded by tape recordings of conversations between
Panetti and his parents. They indicate he had a good grasp of his legal
case, and that he had adjusted his attitude and his level of cooperation
with doctors depending on which side was paying them.

To Sparks, Panetti's words suggested a rational appreciation of his

"It is not seriously disputable that Panetti suffers from paranoid
delusions of some type, and these delusions may well have contributed to
his murder of Joe and Amanda Alvarado," Sparks wrote. "However, it is
equally apparent from his recorded conversations with his parents that
these delusions do not prevent him from having both a factual and rational
understanding that he committed those murders, was tried and convicted,
and is sentenced to die for them."

Wiercioch said Sparks essentially ignored 30 years of medical evidence and
relied on a small amount of recorded conversation that did not mean
anything when viewed in light of Panetti's system of delusions.

Wiercioch insists Sparks missed the point of the Supreme Court's decision:
A condemned inmate's competency has to be considered in light of his
broader understanding of the crime, why he committed it and why he is
being punished for it.

Careful examination

In its review of the Panetti case, the Supreme Court acknowledged that
"rational understanding" is a difficult concept to define. It also pointed
out that some offenders might be so callous, unrepentant or lacking in
compassion that they might seem out of touch with reality, which does not
mean they cannot be executed.

But the high court said that defendants who are seriously mentally ill
need to be carefully examined to see that what they believe and understand
has some connection to the truth.

"Gross delusions stemming from a severe mental disorder may put an
awareness of a link between crime and its punishment in a context so far
removed from reality that the punishment can serve no proper purpose," the
majority opinion stated. "A prisoner's awareness of the State's rationale
for an execution is not the same as a rational understanding of it."

Sparks' opinion took a limited view of what that means. Panetti's illness
and belief system are largely irrelevant now if he can talk reasonably
about his appeals and understands he is engaged in an adversarial process
that could end with his execution, the judge said.

Understanding matters

Under Sparks' interpretation, even the most bizarre delusional system
would matter little say, Panetti believing he killed his in-laws because
he had been anointed by God to stop an alien invasion of Earth because
the only matter relevant for execution competency would be a rational
understanding of the legal process involved in obtaining it.

"The tapes of Panetti's conversations with his parents establish that
Panetti has a fairly sophisticated understanding of his case, up to and
including the legal intricacies presented by Ford and the Supreme Court's
remand opinion," Sparks wrote.

Sparks also wrote that Panetti's unwillingness to engage mental health
experts equally regardless of which side was employing them also worked
against the claim that he is too ill to understand what is going on.

"This suggests nothing more exotic than a rational understanding that
Panetti's legal defense is an adversarial process and the State is on the
other side," the judge stated.

The case will be appealed and ultimately could end up back with the
Supreme Court for justices to determine whether Sparks followed the intent
of their previous ruling.

(source: Houston Chronicle)

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