Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Fredericksburg Standard on Scott Panetti

The following article appeared yesterday in the Fredericksburg Standard ("U.S. District Court Judge Rules Panetti Competent," May 28, 2008).

Nearly one year after a reprieve was ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court for Fredericksburg convicted killer Scott Panetti, 50, the U.S. District Court in Austin has determined that Panetti is competent to be executed for the 1992 shooting deaths of his wife's parents.

The recent order by Presiding Judge Sam Sparks of the U.S. District Court for the Western District now sends the case before the 5th Circuit Court, setting up a chain of legal proceedings that could ultimately return it to the U.S.Supreme Court.

District Attorney Bruce Curry of the 216th Judicial District in Kerrville confirmed Friday that Judge Sparks had re-heard the case and that he had issued "some fairly extensive findings of fact" in declaring Panetti competent to be executed.

Curry explained that, in making his recent decision, Judge Sparks had utilized new standards set out by the U.S. Supreme Court almost a year ago when Panetti's appeal was reversed.

The latest determination in Austin follows a June 28, 2007, ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that temporarily blocked Panetti's execution.

At that time, the high court ruled in a 5-4 decision that the case must be sent back to Austin for Judge Sparks to determine if Panetti's delusions make him mentally incompetent to be executed.

In the meantime, Panetti has remained on death row.

In the court's 2007 majority decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that it is not enough for inmates to understand that they are to be executed -- as had been the standard developed by the 5th U.S. Court of Appeals.

Instead, Kennedy said that a U.S. Constitution restriction against cruel and unusual punishment -- established in a 1986 court holding -- demands that inmates also understand why they are to be executed.

(Editor's Note: The Court actually addressed the difference between mere "awareness" of the impending execution and the reason for it - the previous standard it had set forth in its Ford v. Wainwright decision - and a "rational understanding" of that execution. Judge Sparks was charged with determining whether Panetti possesses a rational understanding of the reason for his execution, though the Supreme Court did not necessarily provide any guidance as to what that understanding should look like.)

Panetti, who was treated over the years for schizophrenia and paranoid delusions, has claimed that he was sentenced for execution because satanic forces want him silenced from preaching the Gospel -- not as punishment for the shooting deaths of Fredericksburg residents Joe and Amanda Alvarado on the morning of Sept. 8, 1992, while his estranged wife and their toddler daughter watched.

In its 2007 ruling, the Supreme Court said that Panetti was improperly denied the chance to prove he is mentally unfit for execution.

But, in ordering the district court to reassess Panetti's competence, the court declined to provide a precise standard for assessing his claims, leaving that job up to the lower courts.

Last year's high court decision followed a lengthy legal process that had begun almost 12 years earlier.

In a 1995 capital murder trial at Kerrville where he acted as his own attorney, Panetti dressed up in cowboy attire, claiming that he had other personalities and even subpoenaing the late President John F. Kennedy and God.

However, the jury rejected his insanity defense and sentenced him to death.

Panetti had been scheduled to die by lethal injection on Feb. 5, 2004, but a stay of execution was issued the day before by U.S. District Judge Sparks for the Western District of Texas, pending an examination to determine if he was competent to be executed.

Subsequently, Judge Sparks ruled in October of 2004 in Austin that Panetti was sane enough to be executed but that he could not be put to death until the next tier of federal courts -- the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals -- addressed the former Fredericksburg resident's challenge.

The 5th Circuit Court's three-judge panel then ruled in May of 2006 that Panetti was sane enough to receive the death sentence.

In that ruling, the panel -- which interprets law for Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi -- said that mentally ill convicts can be executed as long as they have a basic understanding of their punishment.
That decision maintained that Panetti did not need to believe he was being executed for the murders of his estranged wife's parents.

Previously, state and federal appeals courts had found nothing wrong with Panetti's trial, and the U.S. Supreme Court had declined to hear his appeal.

In addition, the Texas Attorney General's Office had determined that Panetti was competent enough to be executed, and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles also voted, 15-1, against a reprieve.

Numerous appeals to have Panetti's death sentence commuted to life imprisonment have also failed.
In his ruling, Judge Sparks ordered a stay of execution for Scott Panetti pending the outcome of his appeals.

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