HUNTSVILLE, Texas (AP) — A federal appeals court halted Wednesday's scheduled execution of a Texas killer whose attempt to subpoena Jesus Christ as a trial witness and other behavior led his attorneys to argue he is too mentally ill for capital punishment.
Scott Panetti, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia some 14 years before fatally shooting his estranged wife's parents in 1992, was granted the reprieve less than eight hours before he was set to receive a lethal injection. In stopping the execution, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals acknowledged the legal complexity of putting a mentally ill inmate to death.
In a two-sentence ruling, the court said it needs time to "fully consider the late arriving and complex legal questions at issue in this matter" and that it will schedule briefings and hearings to consider arguments.
The Texas attorney general's office said it has no immediate plans to appeal and that state attorneys will present arguments to the 5th Circuit once the court sets a date for them.
Panetti's lawyers described him as delusional and argued that he was too mentally ill to qualify for capital punishment and they sought the delay so Panetti could undergo new competency examinations.
Panetti, who acted as his own trial lawyer, testified as an alternate personality he called "Sarge" to describe the slayings of Joe and Amanda Alvarado. He wore a purple cowboy outfit, including a big cowboy hat, during trial and largely ignored a standby attorney the judge appointed to assist him.
Appeals also were 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. The high court took no action once the lower court stopped the punishment.
Panetti, 56, was still at a prison outside Livingston when the ruling came. He had not been moved to Huntsville, where executions are carried out, Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark said.
The Hayward, Wisconsin, native, who was convicted and sentenced in 1995, had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1978. He had been hospitalized more than a dozen times for treatment in the decade before the shootings.
Panetti's appeals lawyers said they are grateful for the reprieve that will allow "a careful review of the issues surrounding his competency."
"Mr. Panetti has not had a competency evaluation in seven years, and we believe that today's ruling is the first step in a process which will clearly demonstrate that Mr. Panetti is too severely mentally ill to be executed," Greg Wiercioch and Kathryn Kase said in a statement.
Both visited with Panetti in prison in the past few weeks and said his mental condition had worsened.
Wiercioch said Panetti told him devices implanted in his teeth by prison system dentists were sending messages to his brain.
Panetti also has insisted Satan is working through prison officials to execute him to keep him from preaching the Gospel.
State attorneys said records showed no significant change since Panetti's last competency examination. During his trial and subsequent appeals, no court has found him incompetent or insane.
Panetti's estranged wife and her 3-year-old daughter had moved in with the Alvarados at their home in Fredericksburg, about 60 miles north of San Antonio. She obtained a court order to keep Panetti away.
Enraged, he dressed in camouflage clothing and armed himself with a rifle, a sawed-off shotgun and knives. He broke into the home and shot the couple.