The death penalty is a topic that often stirs up strong emotions. This already controversial punishment becomes even more sensitive when a crime is committed by an individual with a severe mental illness. Recently, there has been world-wide media coverage on one Texas homicide case.
Scott Panetti first made headlines in 1992 after he murdered his estranged wife’s parents, while she and their 3-year-old daughter sat and watched helplessly. Panetti then held his wife, Sonja Alverado, and their daughter hostage for hours after the shooting. He later released them unharmed and turned himself into police; not before he showered and put on a clean suite.
While his crime was violent and incomprehensible, Scott had a long history of severe mental illness. He was diagnosed with schizophrenia, manic depression, auditory hallucinations, and paranoia back in 1978 (TheIndependent.com). In the years leading up to the murders, Panetti had been hospitalized both voluntarily and involuntarily 14 times. During the time of the murders, Sonja explained that Scott was not well and he had been suffering from paranoid delusions. After the trial, she even filed a petition stating that he should have never been tried for the crimes due to his mental state.
Alverado had told prosecutors that she had taken Panetti’s guns to their local police station and asked if they would hold on to them because Scott was refusing to take his medication and was, “Exhibiting signs of mental illness.” Instead of holding on to them as she had requested, the police returned them to Panetti just days before the shooting (InternationalJusticeProject.org).
Panetti had two competency hearings; the first was a hung jury while the second found him competent to stay on trial. After the results of the second hearing, he requested to waive his right to counsel and represent himself (InternationalJusticeProject.org). His attorneys objected. They argued that he was incompetent, he didn’t understand the trial process, and he was incapable of representing himself. Unfortunately, the judge granted Panetti’s request.
The trial quickly developed into nothing short of a spectacle. Scott arrived to the courtroom dressed in a purple cowboy outfit complete with a 10-gallon hat, and attempted to call Jesus Christ, the Pope, and John F. Kennedy to the witness stand (NYTimes.com). A man by the name of Dr. Seale, who had previously treated Scott, was in the courtroom and observed the proceedings. He knew that Scott was not mentally well and was unfit to plead his case.
“My God, how in the world can our legal system allow an insane man to defend himself?” said Dr. Seale. “How can this be just?”
Since deinstitutionalization, the number of available, long-term, and inpatient psychiatric treatment facilities have decreased greatly. While the idea of community mental health services are a wonderful one, our country is still lacking the necessary funding, adequate insurance reimbursements, and qualified mental health staff to manage the overwhelming need. Psychiatry waiting lists are getting longer and psychiatric medications can be expensive.
Jails have quickly become the new asylums. Over half of all inmates in the United States suffer from a mental illness and very few prisons systems are able to provide the level of care that these inmates require. However, many inmates will receive medication and eventually gain mental stability (NYTimes.com).
“Some people come here to get medication,” says Ardell Hall, a superintendent of a women’s unit at the Cook County Jail in Chicago. “They commit a crime to get in.”
Many of these inmates will become repeat offenders without consistent medication and treatment on the outside. They will continuously cycle in and out of the system costing taxpayers an upward of $300 per day (NYTimes.com).
In 2002, U.S. Supreme Court banned executions of people with mental illnesses deeming the death penalty in such cases to be cruel and unusual punishment, which is prohibited under the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. However, in the case of Scott Panetti, the state maintained that, “Despite his medical history, he was still cognitively aware of what was happening when he committed the crime, which excludes him from this constitutional protection,” (TeleSur.com). The reason why they allowed him to represent himself is still a mystery.
In 1995, Scott Panetti was sentenced to death for the murders of Joe and Amanda Alverado. His execution was scheduled for December 3rd, 2014 but the Federal Court of Appeals in the Fifth Circuit of New Orleans ruled that the execution will be “pending.”
Petitions in support of Panetti to serve life in prison, rather than the death penalty, have been circulating and have even gained support by many politicians, mental health advocates, and even some celebrities. No one knows for sure what fate has in store for Scott Panetti. But we do know that this case has opened many people’s eyes to the ongoing battle against the stigma and lack of understanding about mental illness.
About Jill Sauser, The Kim Foundation Project Coordinator
Jill graduated with a degree in Journalism and a minor in Speech Communication from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2009. During her time at UNO, she completed a two year PR practicum program where she worked with numerous nonprofit clients including the MS Society, The Archdiocese of Omaha, The Omaha Food Bank and YWCA. Jill joined The Kim Foundation as Project Coordinator in April 2014