Will Texas Execute Schizophrenic Who Defended Himself in a Cowboy Suit?

By William Peacock, Esq. on November 13, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Mad, deranged, demented, non compos mentis, unhinged, mad as a hatter, nutty, off one's rocker, not right in the head -- insane, or just plain crazy.

Or, if you prefer the politically correct term: Scott Panetti is a man suffering from mental illness -- severe schizophrenia, to be even more specific. He's also on death row. In 1992, he shaved his head (poorly) and murdered his in-laws before holding his wife and daughter captive at gunpoint. He then represented himself in a purple cowboy costume and was sentenced to death.

Texas wants to execute him on December 3. Panetti still believes that his execution is being orchestrated by Satan, working through the State of Texas, to put an end to his preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the condemned.

How Nuts Is Nuts?

Lest anyone think this is a case of meandering, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel notes that Panetti, a Wisconsin native, was discharged from the Navy in 1978 after he was diagnosed with paranoia and delusions. According to the Texas Defender organization, he was hospitalized 13 times for mental illness over the next 13 years. His schizophrenia was determined to be severe enough to warrant federal benefits in the 1980s.

At one point, in the mid-1980s, he buried his family's furniture in the back yard in order to ward off the devil.

And yet, he was allowed to represent himself at trial. It went as well as you might expect: He tried to call over 200 witnesses, including John F. Kennedy, the Pope, and Jesus Christ. His court documents were covered with sketches of crosses and rants about Jesus Christ, reports Business Insider.

And if you're still not convinced, The New York Times profiled him in 2006. Panetti told the paper that he was drowned as a child and that he was recently stabbed in the eye in his death row cell by the devil. Fortunately, JFK healed him. The Times also quotes his description of the murders from his trial:

"Sarge is gone. No more Sarge. Sonja and Birdie. Birdie and Sonja. Joe, Amanda lying kitchen, here, there blood. No, leave. Scott, remember exactly what Sarge did. Shot the lock. Walked in the kitchen. Sonja, where's Birdie? Sonja here. Joe, bayonet, door, Amanda. Boom, boom, blood, blood. Demons. Ha, ha, ha, ha, oh, lord, oh, you."

Sarge Ironhorse is the alter-ego who Panetti says was responsible for the killings.

Litigating Nuts

If Panetti's name rings a bell, it might be because he's already been to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2007, the Court reversed the Fifth Circuit's finding of competency, calling their analysis "flawed." The Fifth Circuit had held that it was enough that Panetti understood that he had committed murders and that the state said it was executing him because of those murders. (Even though he believed that their proffered reason was a sham and that the state was working for the devil.)

The Supreme Court ordered that Panetti be re-examined, noting that, "A prisoner's awareness of the State's rationale for an execution is not the same as a rational understanding of it." Nonetheless, the district court found him sufficiently competent in 2008, and the Fifth Circuit affirmed that finding last year.

Despite the courts' rulings, Panetti has attracted a large, worldwide group of supporters who are encouraging Texas Gov. Rick Perry to grant him clemency before his December execution date. The American Bar Association, former prosecutors and DOJ officials, former judges, evangelical leaders, and Panetti's family have all lined up behind him, according to the Texas Defender. His sister has started a Change.org petition as well.

Related Resources:

Copied to clipboard