Federal Appeals Court Grants Texas Prisoner's Request for Evaluation of Competency to Be Executed

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has reversed a ruling by a Texas federal district court that had denied Scott Panetti (pictured), a severely mentally ill death-row prisoner, the appointment of counsel and funding for a mental health expert and investigator to evaluate his competency to be executed. In a 2-1 ruling issued July 11, 2017, the Fifth Circuit, noting that "a decade has now passed since the last determination of whether this concededly mentally ill petitioner is competent to be executed," ordered Panetti's case returned to the lower federal court to appoint counsel, provide funds for an evaluation, and grant counsel sufficient time to prepare a petition on Panetti's competence. Under the U.S. Supreme Court's 1986 ruling in Ford v. Wainwright, prisoners who become mentally incompetent—that is, so mentally ill or cognitively impaired that they are "unaware of the punishment they're about to suffer and why they are to suffer it"—cannot be executed. Panetti has twice been granted stays of execution related to his mental health and competency to be executed. In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Texas federal courts had misapplied the Ford standard when they ignored the effect of Panetti's paranoid schizophrenic delusions on whether he had a rational understanding of his pending execution. The Court wrote: "Gross delusions stemming from a severe mental disorder may put an awareness of a link between a crime and its punishment in a context so far removed from reality that the punishment can serve no proper purpose." On remand, the lower courts denied Panetti's challenge to his competency without providing him a lawyer and a mental health evaluation to develop his claim. In a statement, Panetti's lawyers said, "We are grateful that the court found that Mr. Panetti’s nearly four decades of documented schizophrenia and severe mental illness provided a sufficient showing to obtain experts and resources to pursue the claim that he is currently incompetent for execution.... Mr. Panetti has not been evaluated by any mental health experts since 2007 and his severe mental illness has only worsened while in prison. We are confident that when the lower court is presented with all the evidence, it will find that Mr. Panetti, a schizophrenic man who insisted on representing himself at trial and attempted to subpoena the Pope, John F. Kennedy, and Jesus Christ, is not now competent for execution."

(J. McCullough, "Texas death row inmate Scott Panetti to get further competency review," Texas Tribune, July 11, 2017; R. Autullo, "Death row inmate who shot in-laws in Fredericksburg granted evaluation," Austin American-Statesman, July 11, 2017; "Texas death-row inmate who tried to subpoena Jesus at trial wins review of mental competence," Associated Press, July 11, 2017; G. Wiercioch and K. Kase, "Statement from Mr. Panetti's legal team," Press Release, July 11, 2017.) Read the Fifth Circuit's decision in Panetti v. Davis and the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Panetti v. Quarterman. See Mental Illness.