Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Defending Oneself in Court

Competent to be Executed

In Fredericksburg, Texas in September 1992, Scott Louis Panetti drove over to his in-laws' house, where his wife, Sonja Alvarado, was living with their daughter during a marital separation. Panetti broke into the house, and, in front of his wife and daughter, shot Alvarado's parents to death. When he turned himself in to police later that day, he was arrested. 

Panetti had an extensively documented history of mental illness. Hospitalized 14 times between 1981 and 1992, he had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia on eight separate occasions. His assigned defenders were convinced that he was mentally ill and not competent to stand trial. "Scott was unable to cooperate with his attorneys or assist them in any way," one of them said to local reporters. "Over a period of two and a half years, I never saw a change in Scott's demeanor and conversation. His talk was always bizarre. He was never able to complete a rational and meaningful conversation with his attorney."

Scott Louis Panetti
Scott Louis Panetti

A competency hearing was scheduled in July 1994, but it resulted in a hung jury, with ten of the 12 jurors voting for incompetency. The hearing was subsequently moved to another county. Psychiatrists for both sides agreed that Scott had schizophrenia; the psychiatrist for the prosecution even said that the mental illness could impair his ability to work with counsel. The jury nevertheless found Panetti competent to stand trial.

Panetti decided to waive his right to counsel and decided to pursue a plea of not guilty due to mental illness. His sister believed that this plea stemmed from his mental illness, and she stated in an affidavit dated June 12, 1997, that "his fears of his attorneys were irrational and due to his paranoid delusions." The judge disagreed, finding that "Scott Panetti had voluntarily and knowingly waived his right to counsel." He was then allowed to defend himself.

Prior to the trial, Panetti acted strangely. He sent mail to his sister in Wisconsin filled with strange writings and referred to her as his "legal assistant." He mailed her all of his documents and records to keep the guards from spying on his work. The family tried to send everything back to him in time for the trial, but by the time the package arrived, jury selection had ended.

Even during jury selection, Panetti had behaved strangely, flipping a coin to determine if he approved of any given juror. He filed delusional motions, such as requesting that the venue be changed because the people of Fredericksburg were plotting against him. He also attempted to subpoena people such as Jesus Christ or the deceased John F. Kennedy. During the trial itself, covered by the Austin American Statesman among other papers, Panetti wore a purple cowboy outfit, complete with a hat "dangling around his neck." His sister was appalled, saying to reporters, "I had never seen Scott so sick." The lawyer appointed as Panetti's standby council, Scott Monroe, said he was unable to assist because of Panetti's failure to understand what was going on around him. He merely watched as Panetti committed legal suicide in the courtroom.

Panetti's opening statement was irrational and rambling. Observers later commented to the press that "his questions were completely without thought" and "the questions were irrelevant." The entire trial was described as "circus-like," "a farce," "not moral," and "a mockery." Many pro-bono groups, such as the Texas Defender Service, said that allowing Panetti to defend himself was a travesty of justice.

Monroe told reporters that the jury was upset when Panetti harshly cross-examined Sonya Alvarado. He believed that it had an effect on the verdict, which came back as guilty, with the recommendation for the death penalty. Experts and jurors alike stated that had the case been handled differently, Panetti would not have received the death penalty.

The case was appealed, and the Texas Court of appeals addressed the issue of self-representation by ruling that Panetti had been competent. The real issue was not his competency to defend oneself, but his competency to even choose to do so. Although the appeals to get Panetti off death row were eventually exhausted, a federal judge, Sam Sparks, granted a stay of execution pending a review into Panetti's competency. He found that the earlier appeals had been denied because the Texas Legislature does not give higher courts the authority to review a trial court's finding of competency. Instead, the court claimed that only findings of incompetency can be appealed. Sparks called the law "ridiculous," saying that there should be no law that cannot be appealed.

Currently, the case is still under review, and there has been no future date set yet for an execution. It's altogether possible that a mentally-ill offender who should never have been allowed to represent himself in the first place may be executed. Perhaps his death will bring needed attention to the issues involved in the right and competency to defend oneself. Hopefully, resolving this debate will not exact so high a price.