Appeals court stops Scott Panetti execution

Scott Panetti (AP Photo/Texas Department of Criminal Justice)

FREDERICKSBURG, Texas (KXAN/AP) — The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has issued a stay of execution for a Fredericksburg man scheduled to be executed Wednesday. Scott Panetti was convicted of a double murder more than 20 years ago for killing his mother and father-in-law back in 1992 in front of his estranged wife and 3-year-old daughter. The reprieve came less than eight hours before Panetti was set to receive a lethal injection.

“We STAY the execution pending further order of the court to allow us to fully consider the late arriving and complex legal questions at issue in this matter,” read the court’s decision. “An order setting a briefing schedule and oral argument will follow.”

The case has drawn international attention because Panetti suffers from schizophrenia, renewing the debate over capital punishment and mental illness. Panetti’s lawyers contend he is too mentally ill to qualify for capital punishment, and they sought a delay for new competency tests. His attorneys also had appeals before the U.S. Supreme Court, which has said mentally ill people cannot be executed if they don’t have a factual and rational understanding of why they’re being punished.

“This is clearly a very seriously ill man, and we need to stop criminalizing mental illnesses and make sure people are getting the treatment they need,” said Karen Ranus with the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Scott Panetti’s attorney, Kathryn Kase, says her client is severely ill; diagnosed back in 1978 with schizophrenia. After Wednesday’s ruling, she will now have another shot to argue killing Panetti is unconstitutional.

“In my judgement it’s appropriate for this execution to be stopped,” she said. “There are critical questions about Scott Panettis competence to be executed.”

Keith Hampton represented Panetti in the past and can vouch for his former client’s mental state.

“If you stay in a room with him for more than 30 minutes, even if hes trying to maintain the facade of mental health, he can’t keep it up,” Hampton added.

Panetti was diagnosed with Schizophrenia years before the murders. Ranus says executing him sends the wrong message, but the state has maintained Panetti is not so mentally ill that he didn’t know what he was doing.

“If you’re truly mentally ill, then of course, I don’t expect you to be executed,” Angela Alvarado, the victim’s niece, said in a 2004 interview with KXAN. “But he’s led a normal life most of his life.”

Gov. Rick Perry has received several pleas to stop the Panetti execution, including anti-death penalty groups and the United Nations. But some conservative leaders, including former presidential candidate Ron Paul, have also come out against the execution.

The fifth circuit court will now decide whether Panetti gets a new execution date or spends the rest of his life in prison. The Attorney General’s Office did not appeal today’s stay and chose to not comment on it.

We also reached out to Scott Panetti’s family. They did not want to talk on camera, but Panetti’s sister did send us a message saying, “We are overjoyed that common sense and compassion prevailed.”

Panetti is still on death row but it is not unusual for inmates to be taken off death row because of legal appeals. Since 1976 more than 250 inmates have been removed, including several tied to Central Texas cases. Robert Springsteen spent eight years on death row after being convicted of killing four girls in Austin’s “Yogurt Shop Murders.” But the charges were dismissed in 2009 after tests on DNA evidence did not tie him to the crime.

Anthony Graves spent 16 years on death row convicted being an accomplice to murder before a federal court overturned his conviction in 2010. No physical evidence ever linked Graves to the crimes. And Cathy Lynn Henderson will no longer face the death penalty for killing a baby boy in Travis County in 1994. She is still in prison, awaiting a retrial in her case.

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