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The Source: Executing The Mentally Ill

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay in tonight's scheduled execution of Scott Panetti.

Panetti was diagnosed with schizophrenia 30 years ago at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. He was observed or institutionalized for his mental illness many times leading up to the violent murder of his then in-laws, Joe and Amanda Alvarado in 1992, while off his medications.

In his trial, Panetti represented himself, in a cowboy suit, wherein he attempted to call hundreds of witnesses including Jesus Christ.

The 8th amendment bars cruel and unusual punishment, which many courts have ruled includes the severely mentally ill. The supreme court ruled in 1986's Ford v Wainwright that you cannot execute a prisoner who is "insane." 

How the courts interpret who is sane or insane and when a defendent/prisoner must be sane in order to be executed has changed dramatically over the years.  A standard of saneness from arrest to sentencing so that a defendant could contribute to his or her defense was observed for years, but discarded after Ford in lieu of a prisoner understanding why he or she would be executed. 

There have been several people put to death across the country who were mentally ill.  Across the country polling shows that this practice is incredibly unpopular with 28 percent favoring the practice while 58 percent opposed it. 

How crazy is too crazy to execute? Should the standard reflect a more cautious approach?


  • Amy Dillard, professor of law at the University of Baltimore
  • Paul Gionfriddo, CEO and president of Mental Health America, a nonprofit that advocates for changes to wellness and mental health policy.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org