Panetti gets 11th-hour stay

Former Wisconsin resident Scott Panetti was granted a 60-day stay of execution late Wednesday, the day before his scheduled execution in Texas. Panetti is on death row for a conviction in 1995 for the 1992 shooting deaths of his ex-wife's parents, Joe and Amanda Alvarado.

"We're so thankful to God for doing this," said Yvonne Panetti, Scott's mother.

Panetti was sentenced after refusing counsel and representing himself at his trial, despite urgings from many people that he was unfit to stand trial, unfit to represent himself and unfit to be executed due to mental illness, said his current attorney Michael Gross.

Panetti's case received a setback Jan. 28 when the Court of Criminal Appeals of Texas denied a stay of execution. Gross filed a second motion for a stay Wednesday and it was approved. The heart of the problem in the Panetti case revolves around whether or not Panetti is mentally competent to be executed.

Before his criminal trial in 1995, Panetti was subject to two competency trials. The first resulted in a hung jury, the second found him competent. Family and psychologists disagree with the ruling, citing a history of mental problems that resulted in 11 commitments to mental hospitals between 1981 and 1992.

Panetti also was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, according to Hazel Moran, assistant director of juvenile justice for the National Mental Health Association, which has been working to help commute Panetti's sentence to life in prison.

Yvonne Panetti described her son as "mentally ill" while acting as his own attorney, and F.E. Seale, a doctor who treated Panetti for mental illness in 1986, agreed in an affidavit sent to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in 1999.

"I observed Scott for an entire day while he called witnesses and saw Scott testify to the jury," Seale said in the affidavit. "In my opinion, Scott was not competent to stand trial because he was unable to assist himself in his own defense and he did not have a factual and rational understanding of the proceeding. I base this on my prior treatment of Scott and my observation of him during the capital murder trial."

Affidavits like the one Seale filed with the court are what led the court to grant Panetti a stay. According to the court's order for a stay, released Wednesday, the motion rejected in late January attempted to prove Panetti was not competent for execution. In that case, the court rejected the motion because it contained Panetti's mental history from 1981 to 1997, which did not show he was incompetent at the time the motion was put forth, the order said.

Gross said Mark Cunningham and law professor David Dow evaluated Panetti and filed affidavits outlining "why they say Scott hasn't changed since the '90s," and gave "current information" on Panetti's mental health.

The order for a 60-day stay of execution will allow the state trial court that rejected the January incompetence motion to review the new evidence, and determine if Panetti is competent to be executed, Gross said.

He said he is confident Panetti will be found incompetent to be executed. Gross has been working pro bono for Panetti since the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case in mid-December.

"That's how strongly I believe Scott's incompetent to be executed," Gross said. Many groups, including Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union, have rallied behind Panetti, circling petitions and calling Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

According to Yvonne Panetti, the case reflects the treatment of mentally ill people in the justice system. She said the justice system in America is "still treating mental illness as a stigma," and said Wednesday's decision "goes further than Scott. Scott's representing the cause."

Representatives of Judge Stephen Ables, who presided over the 1995 criminal trial, said he could not comment on the decision to allow Panetti to represent himself because the case may come before him again soon.

Other Texas authorities did not return calls for comment.