Panetti was first diagnosed with schizophrenia 36 years ago. He has been untreated for the past 19 years.
Now, his attorneys are fighting to prove that he is too severely mentally ill to be executed. They argue it is unconstitutional to kill a man who represented himself at his trial wearing a cowboy costume and who subpoenaed the Pope and Jesus.
The case has garnered nationwide attention and has brought Texas’ reputation as the most execution-happy state into narrow focus. Huntsville Unit, the most active death chamber in the country, has executed 10 people this year, the fewest since 1996 — and yet still the most in the nation, with Missouri close behind.
Texas’ highest criminal court has refused to stop the execution. In federal court proceedings, Panetti’s lawyers filed a motion to stop his execution in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Sunday. On Monday, they filed for a stay of execution at the U.S. Supreme Court challenging the constitutionality of executing mentally ill people.
Panetti’s clemency petition is in the hands of Gov. Rick Perry, under whose time in office there have been more executions than any other governor in modern history.
Panetti has not been granted a competency hearing in seven years. His lawyers say his mental health has deteriorated considerably since then. Executing an extremely mentally ill man would violate the Eight and 14th Amendments, his lawyers have argued, because it would offend the “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.”
The state has maintained, however, that Panetti has exaggerated his mental illness and is rational enough to understand the reason for his execution.
Panetti was first diagnosed with “early schizophrenia” 18 months after he was honorably discharged from the Navy in 1978.
He was then hospitalized 13 times before he committed the crime for which he is sentenced to death.
Various doctors over time characterized him as being paranoid, incoherent, and hostile. They said he had grandiose ideas and showed schizoid symptoms of depression, delusions, brain dysfunctions, and suicidal ideation.
In May 1986, his first wife, Jane Panetti, reported that after their baby was born in March, Panetti began to believe that the devil had possessed their home. He nailed the curtains shut, buried their furniture in the backyard, and conducted an exorcism he called “the devil’s birthday” by spraying water on a stack of their valuables.
He claimed that “he saw the devil on a wall and cut the devil with a knife and that blood had run out on him,” his wife stated in an affidavit.
A 1986 doctor’s report said Panetti “appears to be on the edge of a psychotic break,” “feels he is controlled by an unseen power,” and “hears Bob Dylan music in his head.” He was also deemed to have a disability and was given Social Security benefits based on his schizophrenia.
In 1990, the hospital records showed Panetti assumed the name Sgt. Iron Horse and believed locals were plotting to kill him.
He also threatened to kill himself, his second wife, Sonja Alvarado, their baby, and his father-in-law by burning the house down. He was involuntarily committed for homicidal behavior and was found to be suffering from delusions and psychotic religiosity.
On Sept. 8, 1992, Panetti shaved his head, dressed in camouflage combat fatigues, armed himself with a sawed-off shotgun and a deer rifle, and shot his parents-in-law, Joe and Amanda Alvarado, at close range at their home. He then took his wife and daughter, both of whom witnessed the murders, to his bunkhouse.
According to court records, he released them unharmed. After a lengthy standoff with the police, he changed into a suit and surrendered to police.
He was off his antipsychotic medication that year.
During his competency trial, a court-ordered psychiatrist said Panetti did not know what year it was or who the president was. He said Panetti had hallucinations of seeing Jesus in his prison cell and described himself as several different people.
Another forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Coons, testified that Panetti had schizophrenia.
[Panetti] began to talk about scripture and then he began, with no prompting from me, no interjection from me whatsoever, he went from scripture to being in jail in Bell County to the way prisoners look, to the Waco Veterans Administration Hospital. He described patients. He talked about lightning, talked about having been drowned a couple of times, the Lord wants me to help a person, talked about the meaning of life, suicidal thoughts, his mother’s prayers, so much to be thankful for, problem marriages, women he’s dated, rodeo, drinking, tequila in old Mexico, the YO Ranch, his battle with the bottle, a mescal dream of a bottle with worms in it, dope dealer sitting in the courtroom, Luke, Chapter 13 Verse 33, new saddle, boots, boot maker is dead, hobbles for a horse, an old piece of cotton rope and riding with a lead shank.
A mistrial was declared after the initial jury in the competency phase proceedings deadlocked. A second jury found him competent to stand trial.
On April 1, 1995, before his trial, Panetti said he had a revelation that he was a “born-again April fool” and that God had cured his schizophrenia. He refused to take his antipsychotic medication. He fired his attorneys, represented himself at trial, and rejected the state’s offer of a life sentence in exchange for a guilty plea.
He wanted to sign his waiver of counsel form with what he said was his Native American name — “Wounded Sunbird, formerly He Who Never Cries.”
During his trial, Panetti wore a Western cowboy costume and a purple bandana. He subpoenaed more than 200 people, including Jesus Christ, the pope, and John F. Kennedy.
He said he was not guilty by reason of insanity and told the jury that only an insane person could prove insanity.
During his trial, Panetti rambled incessantly about everything from his haircuts to castrating a horse.
He took the witness stand and gave the court excessive and irrelevant details about his life, including his birth, his mother’s milk sickness, his tattoo, a horse flipping over on him and his castrating that horse later, a school play, a girlfriend who got him into rodeo, his sexual experiences, his job as an artificial insemination technician for cattle, watching his friend with diabetes injecting insulin, his girlfriend’s abortion, being drugged with LSD and PCP in the Navy, his brother’s wedding, taking cocaine with a nurse after leaving the Navy, talking with a man who worked for Frederick’s of Hollywood who wanted him to model lingerie, killing a rattlesnake, being an extra in a movie, attending cosmetology school and cutting his sister’s hair, accidentally being shot in the leg, and seeing the devil.
His standby counsel Scott Monroe later said that Panetti pointed his hands at the jury like he was shooting while saying “Boom, boom, boom.” Monroe said the jury was visibly upset by his demonstrations.
“This was a show of a mentally incompetent man and did more to give him the death penalty than any other event in trial,” Monroe said.
This was Panetti’s closing statement at the punishment phase of his trial:
You know, just to touch on the spat and wasn’t cuffed, but I was bronc and Sheriff Kaiser and I had a talk, well, of the fact that I’m no longer American citizen, and because of my buckaroo case. I believe city people love horses, too, and I don’t consider myself anything above or below anyone, but I do consider myself me, and when I made my last confession at Veterans Hospital to Father De la Garza, I wasn’t Catholic.
Over the years following his conviction, Panetti’s lawyers consistently have gone to federal court to challenge his competency to be executed because of his mental illness.
In 2004, the district court said it was a fact that Panetti suffered from mental illness and that his “cognitive processes are impaired” to such an extent that “by grandiosity and a delusional belief system in which he believes himself to be persecuted for his religious activities.”
In 2007, the Supreme Court, while remanding Panetti’s case for further proceedings, noted that there was “much in the record to support the conclusion that petitioner suffers from severe delusions” and that it was “uncontested that petitioner made a substantial showing of incompetency.”
After 17 years on death row, Panetti received his first disciplinary write-up for a serious offense — creating a disturbance and disrupting operations in the prison.
Later that month, he filed a grievance saying he had been falsely accused of that charge. After asking to be restored to his former cell, he wrote:
Well now nuff said as Jake the cow poke would quip in Cow pokes cartoons by Ace Reid from Kerrville Texas. You may see his cartoons in the old Dovers/Journals a news paper for stockmen. Were [sic] it was reported back in the 1940’s the Army, yes the United States Army invaded Mexico to put a stop to a screw worm out break. The only case of scew [sic] worms i’ve ever encounted [sic] was in Montna [sic] USA 1970’s. also may I add the only time i’ve cused [sic] out anyone is when they have attacked my mother or son, daughter with verbal disrespect or made threats against my family for my being a preacher of truth although I’ve not been preaching as when Election 2000 to early 2012. Now i’m just try’n to keep my own personal Jesus to my self and wonder is it Bar-Jesus or Jesus of Nazareth! at times I’m confused some.
On Nov. 7, 2013, Panetti was charged with assault after he threw urine onto the walkway in front of his cell and told the officer who confronted him: “Your [sic] a crooked officer, Mr. Burks, and I’m going to smite you for your wickedness.”
Panetti complained that he was being persecuted for his religious beliefs and the appearance of Satanic graffiti in his cell.
Kathryn Kase, Panetti’s pro bono counsel from the Texas Defender Service, said that his mental condition had deteriorated over the years. During a two-hour meeting with him on Nov. 6, Kase said he gave her disjointed answers and went through several unconnected topics.
He told her that he thought the Texas Department of Criminal Justice was surveilling him by implanting a listening device in his gold tooth. He said he was being executed because TDCJ wanted him to “shut up” about corruption on death row and to prevent him from teaching the gospel.
When asked to elaborate on the corruption, he said the guards were stealing his care packages and the TDCJ wanted to “rub me out” because of what he knew.
According to Kase’s report, Panetti said he heard voices that had information about cheerleaders and friends from his high school. He said he read the Gospel to stop the voices from overwhelming him.
Kase said Panetti told her, “Jesus is my treatment program because I can’t afford mental health treatment.”
Panetti’s lawyers filed motions in the state district court and then the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (CCA) to stay or modify the date of his execution in order to assess his competency to be executed.
His lawyers also have filed a clemency petition with Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, along with letters of support from various state and national mental health organizations and professionals, as well former Gov. Mark White and faith leaders.
Panetti’s clemency petition has also garnered support from Texas legislators, former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, and the European Union.
In another appeal to CCA, which was rejected Wednesday, his lawyers challenged the use of the death penalty against persons with severe mental illnesses citing an empirical study that showed an emerging national consensus against executing such people.
The appeal also stated that imposition of the death penalty on those with severe mental illness offends the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” The stay request was rejected 6-3.
On Sunday, his attorneys filed an appeal at the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to review the district court’s decision denying his motion to stay the execution, regarding their claim seeking appointment of counsel and funding for a mental health expert.
On Monday, they appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the execution, arguing that the Eighth Amendment protection against cruel and unusual punishment includes a prohibition on executing people with severe mental illness.