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Federal appeals court halts execution of severely mentally ill man

A federal appeals court halted the Wednesday execution of Scott Panetti, a Texas inmate who has suffered more than three decades of profound mental illness.

A federal appeals court on Wednesday halted the planned execution of Texas man Scott Panetti, a convicted murderer who has suffered more than three decades of profound mental illness. Panetti was scheduled to be executed at 7 p.m. ET Wednesday.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals granted the last-minute stay of execution after attorneys for Panetti said he was not competent enough to be executed. "We stay the execution pending further order of the court to allow us to fully consider the late arriving and complex legal questions at issue in this matter. An order setting a briefing schedule and oral argument will follow," the court said in a brief order

“I’m grateful that cooler minds have prevailed in the judicial system. This is in contrast to the state of Texas’ rush to execution,” Panetti’s attorney, Kathryn Kase of the Texas Defender Service, told msnbc. “Certainly we believe that this is the first step in a process that should demonstrate once and for all that Scott Panetti is too mentally ill to be executed.”

RELATED: Conservatives request Rick Perry halt execution of ‘mentally ill’ inmate

Panetti, 56, was first documented for showing signs of early schizophrenia when he was just 20 years old. He was placed in mental hospitals upward of 15 times -- some involuntarily -- over the course of more than a decade. In one case in 1986, Panetti’s wife reported that he conducted an exorcism to his home, burying his furniture in his backyard because he believed the devil lived inside his belongings.

There is little doubt that Panetti committed a gruesome crime. In 1992, Panetti shaved his head, dressed in military fatigues and stormed the home of his in-laws, Joe and Amanda Alvarado. Panetti shot the couple at a point blank range, forcing his estranged wife and 3-year-old daughter to watch as they died. He later changed into a suit, and turned himself into police.

The question lies in the troublesome circumstances that led Panetti down the path to death row in the first place. After being deemed fit to stand trial, Panetti fired his lawyers, thinking they were conspiring against him. He represented himself in his own capital murder trial. Panetti showed up to court dressed in a cowboy costume with a purple bandanna. He fell asleep at points during the trial, assumed his alter-ego personality known as “Sarge” and made threatening gestures toward the jury. Panetti even attempted to subpoena more than 200 witnesses, including the pope, Jesus and John F. Kennedy.

It took just a few hours of deliberation before a jury convicted Panetti and recommended the death penalty.

If Panetti’s well-documented history of psychotic behavior wasn’t enough to paint a picture of his decades-long struggle with mental illness, that he was permitted to represent himself during his trial was enough for observers at the time to call the proceedings a “circus” and “judicial farce.” After seeing the case wind through the courts in determining whether Panetti was competent enough to be executed by the state, his attorneys wondered if the country would be able to stomach the thought of killing a man whose lawyers say does not understand the consequences of his actions.

Cases like Panetti's set up an uncomfortable question for the 32 states where capital punishment is legal: Are certain convicted criminals too mentally ill or disabled to be executed? Several Supreme Court cases have tried to offer up an answer. In the 1986 case Ford v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the 8th Amendment prohibited "a prisoner who is insane" from facing execution. Later in 2002, the high court found that executing people with severe mental disabilities constitutes as "cruel and unusual punishment." However, the standards determining the degree of mental illness or disability that makes a death row inmate deemed fit for execution is an issue that many states and lower courts must now grapple with in practice.

According to Panetti's attorneys, though the condemned man understands that he faces execution, his mental illness prevents him from being able to connect that the crime he committed the reason for his punishment. They say that Panetti believes the state is working in a conspiracy with Satan, and that he is set to be killed for preaching the gospel. Prosecutors, however, argued that Panetti is faking the degree of his illness, while witnesses for the state have testified that he comprehends the consequences of his crimes.

Panetti's case comes at a time of heightened scrutiny of death penalty cases across the country. Botched executions have raised serious questions about the efficacy of carrying out executions by using lethal drugs that are untested and from undisclosed origins. Eleventh-hour exonerations for death-row inmates raise the possibility that innocent people could be sentenced to death.

And amid a growing effort to change America's capital punishment practices comes a coalition of unexpected advocates: Evangelical Christians and high-profile political conservatives. From conservative stalwarts like former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, leaders took Panetti's case to make a last-minute appeal to Texas Gov. Rick Perry to halt the execution on moral grounds.

"The authority to take a man’s life is the most draconian penalty that we allow our government to exercise," the group wrote. "As conservatives, we must be on guard that such an extraordinary government sanction not be used against a person who is mentally incapable of rational thought."