The Slatest

Conservative Appeals Court Stays Mentally Ill Texas Inmate’s Execution in Surprise Move

Texas Gov. Rick Perry. The state of Texas has pushed for years to execute Panetti.

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A generally conservative appeals court has stayed the execution of a mentally ill Texas inmate who was scheduled to be put to death at 7 p.m. ET. From the National Journal:

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the most conservative in the country, stayed Panetti’s execution “pending further order of the court to allow us to fully consider the late arriving and complex legal questions at issue in this matter.”

Panetti’s case has drawn considerable attention and controversy in recent weeks, as mental health experts and death penalty opponents have said he is too mentally ill to be executed.

Slate’s Boer Deng and Dahlia Lithwick wrote about Panetti’s case in a piece published Nov. 19. Panetti had been hospitalized many times for schizophrenia over a 12-year period before killing his estranged wife’s parents in 1992. (In other words, his mental problems do not appear to have been staged for purposes of defense.) He was allowed to defend himself during the 1995 trial at which he was sentenced to death despite clear signs of mental illness—he wore a purple cowboy suit and called John F. Kennedy as a witness. According to a Supreme Court ruling in the 1986 case Ford v. Wainwright, the Eighth Amendment prohibits government from executing “a prisoner who is insane.”

Write Deng and Lithwick: “The 5th Circuit, which hears cases from Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi, has never found an inmate incompetent to be executed.” In fact, the 5th Circuit had already upheld more than one earlier ruling declaring Panetti competent. At this time, the Texas Tribune reports, Panetti’s lawyers are specifically appealing to the court to order that the execution be stopped until their client is given a new competency exam because his competence has not been evaluated in seven years.

A number of prominent political figures—including Republicans such as Ron Paul, Ken Cuccinelli (the former attorney general of Virginia, and Gary Bauer—have urged Texas Gov. Rick Perry not to follow through with Panetti’s execution.