A federal appeals court on Wednesday halted the execution of a Texas death row inmate with a history of schizophrenia, just hours before he was to be put to death in Huntsville.
A two-sentence stay was released by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, one of two courts considering appeals from Scott Louis Panetti's defense team.
"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," the appeals court order stated. "An order setting a briefing schedule and oral argument will follow."
Panetti, 56, was to be executed Wednesday night for the 1992 shooting deaths of his in-laws, Joe and Amanda Alvarado of Kerr County.
"We are grateful that cooler legal minds have prevailed and the 5th Circuit wants to take a more in-depth look at this situation," said Kathryn Kase, Panetti's Houston-based attorney and executive director of the Texas Defender Service.
Kase contacted Panetti's family members to notify them of the stay. They were visiting with him at the state's Allan B. Polunsky Unit in Livingston on Wednesday morning. The Polunsky Unit houses Texas' death row. Panetti had yet to be transferred to Huntsville, where the execution chamber is located.
"We have spoken to his family, and they are relieved and they are speaking to him about it," Kase said.
Several lawyers, religious leaders and former lawmakers have asked Gov. Rick Perry to use his authority and stay the execution for 30 days. By late Tuesday, the governor's office declined to comment on whether Perry would act on the request.
Only action from Perry or the courts can prevent the execution from moving forward. On Monday, Panetti's lawyers asked the U.S. Supreme Court to halt the execution, saying their client is not competent. Executing him, they argued, would violate his Eighth Amendment protection to be free of cruel and unusual punishment.
"This Court should review this case to determine whether the imposition of the death penalty on offenders with severe mental illness offends contemporary standards of decency," wrote Panetti's lawyers, Kathryn Kase and Gregory Wiercioch.
It's been nearly seven years since their client was last assessed for competence, the defense team argued.
But the Texas attorney general's office late Tuesday countered that claims of Panetti's incompetence have been "tried, appealed, reviewed in state and federal habeas proceedings and conclusively put to rest" by numerous courts.
The attorney general's brief included an affidavit from the state's director of mental health services for the Texas prison system, Dr. Joseph V. Penn, stating that none of the 14 mental health staff who have met with Panetti since 2004 have "identified any clinical signs and symptoms indicating a psychiatric diagnosis or required the need for additional mental health or psychiatric treatment such as psychotropic medications."
Court filings by the defense show that the Wisconsin native was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was 20. At the time of the murders, he had been collecting federal disability checks because the illness prevented him from holding down a job.
Panetti represented himself during his capital murder trial, sometimes dressed in a cowboy outfit. He rejected an offer to plead guilty in exchange for a life sentence, and instead put on an insanity defense although he called no mental health witnesses. Panetti did try to call President John F. Kennedy, Pope John Paul II and Jesus Christ as witnesses.
Appeal filings over the years detail how Panetti was first diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1978 when he was taken to Brooke Army Medical Center following an accident in which he suffered electrical burns while working as an electrical lineman.
The diagnosis came shortly after Panetti spent only 10 months in the U.S. Navy. He would eventually be hospitalized at least a dozen times for mental illness.
According to the filing before the U.S. Supreme Court, Panetti's first wife, Jane, had her husband committed in May 1986 to a psychiatric facility after he nailed curtains in their home shut, buried household furniture in the backyard and conducted an exorcism of the devil from their home that involved spraying water over valuables that he had not buried.
A flurry of subsequent hospitalizations followed at Kerrville State Hospital and the Veterans Administration medical centers in Waco and in Kerrville.
In 1990, two years before Panetti would kill the parents of his second wife, Sonja Alvarado, he was involuntarily committed again at Kerrville State Hospital. The action was taken after Panetti began "swinging a cavalry sword around the house and threatening to kill" his wife, their baby, his wife's father and himself. Panetti's wife eventually left him to live with her parents.
On Sept. 8, 1992, Panetti shaved his head, put on camouflage combat fatigues and then, armed with a sawed-off shotgun and a deer rifle, went to the Alvarado's home and killed them both in front of their daughter and granddaughter.