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Scott Panetti: To Execute or Not To Execute?

For two decades, Scot Panetti, has been a question no one can answer.

In August of 1992, Scott Panetti and his wife, Sonja Alvarado, separated due to Scott’s abuse, drinking, and his obsession that the devil lived in their house. Sonja secured a restraining order and went to stay with her parents, Amanda and Joe Alvarado in Fredericksburg, TX. Sonja was accompanied by a three-year-old daughter, Amanda Lea, that she shared with Scott.

Distraught over the break up of his family, Scott dressed in military fatigue, shaved his head and drove himself to the home of the Alvarado’s on the morning of September 8, 1992. Upon arrival, he broke into the home and allowed Sonja and their daughter to leave as he shot her parents with a rifle at close range. After changing into a suit, he turned himself into police later the same day. Scott told police that demons were laughing at him when he left the house and that “Sarge”, who often spoke to him inside his head, had controlled him during the murders. He added that divine intervention had ensured that his victims did not suffer.

Because Scott’s mental capacity was in question, a hearing was held in July 1994 to determine his mental competency to stand trial. The jury was unable to reach a verdict and the hearing was declared a mistrial. In September, during the second hearing, psychiatrists for both the defense and the prosecution agreed that Scott’s delusions could interfere with his ability to effectively communicate with his lawyer. Both sides also agreed with the diagnosis of schizophrenia. Although the prosecution’s expert agreed that mental illness was present and a potential obstacle, he concluded that Scott was competent. The jury ultimately handed down a decision that Scott would stand trial.

Waiving his right to counsel, Scott acted as his own attorney at the trial that took place in September 1995. Scott rambled on in his own defense while dressed in suspenders, a cowboy hat, and a purple bandana. He called JFK to the stand, as well as Jesus Christ and the Pope. He called actresses and actors and people who had died long before the trial. He also went back and forth between himself and his alternate personality, Sgt. Ranahan Ironhorse. When his courtroom antics ended, Scott was sentenced to death.

Witnesses who attended the trial described it as a “joke”, a “mockery”, and a “circus”. After Scott’s conviction, witnesses entered affidavits concluding that from their observations of him and from their prior knowledge, Scott was incompetent to stand trial. At least two doctors who had previously treated him for mental illness weighed in with statements reflecting their shock that Scott was not only found competent but allowed to represent himself. Statements also included accounts of the judge allowing Scott to “run free with his irrational questions and courtroom antics.”

An attorney appointed to Scott as a standby counsel submitted an affidavit saying, “This was not a case for the death penalty. Scott’s life history and long term mental problems made an excellent case for mitigating evidence. Scott did not present any mitigating evidence because he could not understand the proceeding.” He went on to refer to the trial as a “judicial farce, and a mockery of self-representation.” He said, “It should never have been allowed to happen.”

Four of the jurors who later spoke to attorneys in the case were said to have admitted that if Scott had been properly represented, he would not have received the death penalty. One of the jurors was said to have stated that many of the jurors voted for the death penalty due to their fear of his behavior during the trial.

In an affidavit submitted in 1999, Sonja Alvarado, the daughter of the victims and Scott's ex-wife, said, “I know now that Scott is mentally ill and should not be put to death.”

Over the last two decades, Scott has been given execution dates that come and go with stays of execution for further investigation of his case and mental state. Since the trial, several experts have agreed that he is mentally incompetent and should not be put to death. Attorneys have fought and won to keep him alive until rules concerning execution of the mentally disabled can be made clear.

In Scott’s case, because he flashes back and forth between delusion and sanity, he can only be executed if he is experiencing a moment of sanity. The rule states that before the state may put an inmate to death, the inmate must have a “rational understanding” of the reason behind the execution.

Meanwhile, Scott sits on death row and no one is really sure how much he truly understands. He has spent two decades waiting for death to come at any time. Even if he had been sane at the time of his trial, this 19-year waiting game would most likely have taken a significant toll on his mental state by now.

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Kathy Craig
Kathy Craig

Kathy Craig is a freelance writer of more than two decades in both print and digital media, specializing in health and science writing. She is currently writing a book about recent medical breakthroughs.

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