July 12, 2017 / 3:31 AM / 2 years ago

U.S. court orders evaluation for mentally ill Texas death row inmate

(Reuters) - A Texas death row inmate must be provided federal funds for a mental health expert and an investigator to help him mount a defense that he should not be executed because of his mental illness, a U.S. appeals court ordered on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: Inmate Scott Panetti is seen in an undated picture release by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Huntsville, Texas. REUTERS/Texas Department of Criminal Justice/Handout via Reuters

The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans comes more than two years after the judges halted the execution of convicted murderer Scott Panetti to consider his appeal over being denied an appointed counsel and funding for a mental health expert and investigator.

Panetti, in his late 50s, was convicted of fatally shooting his wife’s parents in the central Texas town of Fredericksburg in 1992.

Tuesday’s decision reverses a 2014 order by U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks in Austin, Texas.

It sends Panetti’s case back to the U.S. District Court, telling the judge to appoint a lawyer for Panetti, authorize federal funds for a mental health expert and investigator to aid him in his defense, and “conduct any further proceedings to determine afresh Panetti’s competency to be executed.”

“Delivery of the process due protects the prisoner and in doing so protects us all,” Judge Patrick Higginbotham wrote in a 19-page opinion and order.

Texas prosecutors said Panetti shaved his head and armed himself with a sawed-off shotgun and broke into the home of Joe and Amanda Alvarado, killing the two with his wife and daughter witnessing him shoot dead his mother-in-law.

Panetti represented himself at his 1995 trial, often speaking incoherently and seeking to call Jesus Christ and President John F. Kennedy as defense witnesses. He was sentenced to death in 1995.

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requires a criminal defendant to have a rational understanding of why he is being put to death and the effect of the death penalty.

A representative for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Paxton’s office has said a number of courts have ruled Panetti competent to stand trial and to be executed.

Greg Wiercioch and Kathryn Kase, attorneys for Panetti, said in an e-mailed statement they were grateful the court found Panetti’s decades of documented schizophrenia sufficient to obtain experts and resources to pursue the claim that he is currently incompetent for execution.

Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Clarence Fernandez

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