The Crime and Trial
On December 3, 2014, the State of Texas will execute Scott Panetti for
the cold-blooded murder of his in-laws.
Panetti’s crime is horrific. In 1995, Panetti – in a manic
state, suffering from ongoing auditory hallucinations – followed
the instructions of “Sarge,” shaved his head and donned camouflage,
broke into his in-laws home, and shot them at close range within feet
of his wife and infant child.
He took life. There is no justification for such action. Those who take
life, take love: a mother’s love, a child’s love, love that
was meant to make the world a better place and society cannot tolerate
those who take life and deprive the world of much-needed love. However,
it would be a mischaracterization to describe Panetti’s crime as
a logically planned, calculated, and methodically cool crime.
In 1995, Panetti – in a manic state, suffering from ongoing auditory
hallucinations – followed the instructions of “Sarge,”
shaved his head and donned camouflage, broke into his in-laws home, and
shot them at close range within feet of his wife and infant child.
Scott is not a callous and un-empathetic killer; he is a tragically sick
man. Prior to the murders, he had been hospitalized fourteen (14) separate
times, even being institutionalized for a time after swinging a sword
at his wife and daughter. By the early 1990s, he had been diagnosed with
severe mental illness, including delusion, paranoid schizophrenia, manic
depression, and auditory hallucinations (i.e. he heard voices). He claimed
that his murder victims felt no pain because God
Panetti is a man who decided to try his capital murder case on his own,
without the assistance of counsel – whom he was convinced was working
with law enforcement to secure his conviction. He informed the jury that
“Sarge” was to blame for the murders. Scott attended his trial
in a purple cowboy outfit. And he attempted to compel Jesus of Nazareth,
President John F. Kennedy, and the Pope to testify on his behalf.
Not surprisingly, Panetti was found guilty and sentenced to death. At the
time of his jury trial, the State of Texas did not offer jurors or the
court the option of “life without parole” as a sentencing
option, and at least two jurors indicated that they voted for execution
solely as a means to ensure that Panetti would not pose a future threat
to the public.
Understanding and Execution
While the United States Supreme Court has taken a stand and prohibited
the execution of juveniles and those suffering from cognitive disabilities
– still referred to in Ohio as “mental retardation”
– and the Court has even held that a State cannot execute the “severely
mentally ill.” The rationale for these cases rest upon a well-developed
series of empirical studies which conclude, in short, that children, the
mentally disabled, and the severely mentally ill do not understand or
comprehend the true nature of their crimes. Constitutionally, the Court
ruled that executing these individual would constitute “cruel and
unusual punishment” prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.
Children are too young and have not developed the cognitive faculties to
completely understand the finality of death and the consequences of their
actions. Consequently, they cannot be executed. For instance, the perpetrator
of the tragedy at Chardon High School who recently escaped prison in Lima,
Ohio and was subsequently apprehended, cannot ever be executed for taking
the lives of his classmates. Likewise, the mentally disabled do not and
will not understand the nature of their actions or respect the consequences thereof.
The Court recently addressed the execution of the mentally disabled. It
ruled that Florida’s death penalty statute, particularly the portion
which established a 70 score IQ as the sole standard by which mental disability
would be determined was unconstitutional. The justices opined that because
cognitive disabilities were of such a diverse nature, defining them solely
by IQ did not meet what society and modern medicine knows about the nature
and extent of mental retardation. The Court determined that the statute’s
narrow definition was unconstitutional and, in doing so, saved the life
of a death row inmate scheduled for execution.
In stark contrast to mental disability, the Court’s rationale for
overturning the executions of the severely mentally ill has been sporadic
and has failed to establish any framework by which state legislatures
can craft their death penalty statutes. Instead, each case that has come
to the high Court have been dealt with inconsistently. In 1986, Justice
Thurgood Marshall crafted an opinion that overturned a narrowly defined
group of inmates’ death sentences.
From that point forward until Panetti’s 2007 appeal, the Court seemed
conflicted in its opinions, oftentimes presenting diverging science and
creating confusing law on the subject. However, regardless of the nature
and extent of a death row inmate’s mental illness, one thing was
clear: if he or she knew that he or she was about to be killed and could
articulate why the state was killing him or her, there was a high likelihood
that the Supreme Court would affirm the execution.
With Panetti, there seemed to be an apex in this area of the law –
the modern psychological and neuropsychological medical community presented
comprehensive studies, briefs and analyses for the Court to consider –
and, consequently, the Court had an opportunity to set out guidelines
for lower courts to evaluate the execution of the mentally ill. Instead,
while the Court admittedly overturned Panetti’s execution for a
short time, it instructed Texas only to kill Scott if he had a “rational
understanding” of the crime he committed.
Without any determination of what constituted a “rational understanding,”
Texas set about its business of rehabilitating Panetti at the expense
of taxpayers for the sole purpose of his execution. So, on December 3,
2014, unless the Supreme Court or Governor of Texas intervenes, Scott
Panetti will be yet another inmate passed through Texas’ fast food
style of execution.
A Problem Exposed
I have no doubt that Scott Panetti killed his in-laws in the manner that
Texas presented to the jury. I have no doubt that Panetti is an awful
danger to society. However, his execution will do nothing for society.
In 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice published a statistical analysis
of those in jail suffering from mental illness. The numbers are staggering.
I invite the reader to review these statistics and the study as a whole.
In fact, I am posting the study with this blog for the reader’s
consideration. Mental illness runs rampid through the criminal justice system.
And as our understanding of the illnesses grows, so does our awareness
and prevention efforts. The vast majority of the individuals suffering
from mental illness did not choose to be schizophrenic, did not choose
to be manic, psychotic, or delusional. They would rather not suffer from
panic disorders, dissociative disorders, or the panacea of other disorders
recognized today. In fact, many of them are undiagnosed through school
and employment, and many more self-medicate with alcohol and illegal drugs.
Coupled with the overwhelming poverty, lack of stable childhoods, and generational
mental illness, many of these folks suffer in a manner akin to those suffering
from mental disabilities. While their IQ’s are higher and their
illnesses are not as obvious to a layperson or a court, they suffer just
as much – if not more – than many of those cognitively disabled.
These folks are veterans, college graduates, husbands, fathers, wives,
daughter, and community members.
The State of Texas, with United States Supreme Court’s blessing,
will kill Scott Panetti because the legislators and a majority of the
Court do not fully understand the impact of mental illness on an individual’s
actions, as well as their understanding of actions and consequences. Unfortunately,
it may be too late for Scott. But, if anything good can come from an execution,
I hope it is a call to arms for mental health advocates to join capital
defense and criminal defense lawyers across the country in ensuring that
these lawyers are equipped to represent clients suffering from mental illness.
A Problem Ignored
In my practice, an overwhelming number of my former and current clients
suffer from mental illness. Many of them lack a diagnosis and lack the
funding to seek a proper evaluation from a psychologist or neuropsychologist.
Even more of them self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. This all leads
to more and more crime.
Assuming that the criminal justice system’s purpose is still the
correction and rehabilitation of those who step outside the boundaries
of what legislators have determined classifies as “decent soecity,”
we must understand and be in a position to diagnose, treat, and advocate
for the mentally ill. Funding and staffing is inept, in light of the infinite
size of the issue; and the longer we entirely ignore or fail to adequately
address mental illness, the larger the problem will grow.
Locally, we are inundated with the drug problem that seems to dominate
headlines and the county courtrooms, but we have not looked to that which
belies drug use. Diagnosed – but untreated – and undiagnosed
depression, ADHD, dissociative disorders, and anti-social disorders are
more prevalent than a balloon of heroin or line of cocaine, and are more
often than not the reason an individual chooses illegal drugs and/or crime
in the first instance.
Most importantly, the lack of diagnosis, treatment, and ongoing funding
for the mentally ill will directly contribute if not lead to high rates
of crime. As crime grows, the discontent and divisions within our community
will continue to grow. As crime grows, the greater financial burden will
be placed on local taxpayers to ensure that the crime is properly investigated
and charged; and also to ensure that the accused is provided with counsel,
prosecuted, potentially incarcerated, and provided with all of the protected
avenues of appeal.