Friday, December 5, 2014
Is state of Texas mentally competent? | Last Word
Hours before Scott Panetti was scheduled to be executed Wednesday, a federal appeals court in New Orleans halted the proceedings to take up the issue of whether he is mentally competent enough to be killed.
The evidence is, however, that it is the state of Texas that should be subjected to a mental competency test.
Panetti was convicted of killing his wife’s parents in Fredericksburg in 1992 in front of his wife and their 3-year-old child.
In the previous 14 years he had been hospitalized more than a dozen times for schizophrenia.
His wife had him committed to a mental hospital after he buried their furniture in the backyard because the devil inhabited it.
He also tried to keep the devil out of their house by nailing the curtains shut.
His well-documented paranoia apparently caused him to fire his defense attorneys, and a Gillespie County judge allowed him to defend himself - even after he pursued an insanity defense, not by calling mental health experts but by subpoenaing John Kennedy, the Pope and Jesus.
After he was convicted of killing her parents, his wife filed an affidavit saying he should not be executed because he was insane.
Everybody agrees Panetti is insane.
But what about the Texas judicial system?
I first became concerned about the state of Texas’s state of mind a decade ago while covering the Andrea Yates case.
You may recall her as the Houston-area woman with a long history of severe mental illness who drowned her five children.
She wanted to send them to heaven because Satan convinced her she was a terrible mother whose kids would eventually slip into his grasp and burn in hell for eternity.
The county jail psychiatrist who treated her after the killings testified Yates thought, in her psychotic state, that it was the right thing to do.
Three of four other psychiatrists and one psychologist who interviewed her agreed.
But prosecutors presented a hired-gun psychiatrist (at $105,000) who testified that the fact that Yates called police after completing the killings showed she knew what she had done was wrong.
In addition, he testified, it was illogical for Yates to be killing her at Satan’s urging in order to go to heaven.
That’s right: A psychiatrist based an analysis of guilt on the fact that a deranged woman was irrational in accepting the argument of Satan speaking in her head.
It worked. The jury convicted Yates.
This same psychiatrist, Dr. Park Dietz, was later hired by Tyler prosecutors in the case of Deanna Laney, who killed two of her children and tried to kill a third by bashing their heads in with rocks.
Dietz determined that she was not guilty – and a jury agreed – because she believed the voice in her head telling her to kill her babies was that of God.
In Texas, your guilt or innocence can depend on whose voices your diseased mind conjures up for you.
But there was another twist.
Psychiatrist Dietz turned out to be delusional himself.
He testified that, shortly before the killings, Yates likely saw an episode of “Law and Order” that featured a woman who concocted a story of postpartum depression to beat the rap for cold-bloodedly killing her children.
It turned out that episode didn’t exist, and Yates’ conviction was overturned.
Prosecutors not only brought back Dietz for a second trial four years later, but added a second psychiatrist – at the insane cost of $243,000 – who was even less credible.
Offering evidence that the public is progressing, if not prosecutors, the second jury acquitted Yates.
A recent outpouring of protest against Panetti’s execution – including from conservative quarters – and the fact that Texas’ Court of Criminal Appeals last week denied defense motions to halt the execution by bare majorities of 5-4 and 6-3, indicate that even Texas may be teetering on the verge of sanity.