AUSTIN, Texas, Dec. 3 (UPI) -- A federal appeals court granted a stay Wednesday to Scott Panetti, hours before he was scheduled to die in Texas for killing his wife's parents 22 years ago.
The court in New Orleans said it needed time to examine "the late-arriving and complex legal questions at issue in this matter." Panetti's lawyers argue his life should be spared because he is so mentally ill he does not understand why he faces execution.
Panetti had been scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection at 6 p.m. in the state prison in Huntsville. After the state Board of Pardons and Paroles refused to commute his sentence in a unanimous decision Monday his lawyers filed last-ditch appeals with the U.S. Supreme Court, the Fifth Circuit appellate court and Gov. Rick Perry.
Prosecutors do not dispute that Panetti, who was first diagnosed as a schizophrenic in 1978, is mentally ill. But they have argued in court filings that he has exaggerated his symptoms and does understand what is happening to him.
A number of prominent conservatives have joined groups like the United Nations, European Union and Vatican in urging Perry to stop the execution. They include former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, a libertarian, and Christian evangelicals like Gary Bauer of American Values.
Ken Williams, an expert on the death penalty at South Texas College of Law, said the 5th Circuit rarely issues stays on the day of execution and its decision means the judges found "some merit" in Panetti's arguments.
"The ruling means the court believes there is a question as to whether or not he is mentally incompetent or was not properly evaluated by the lower courts that considered the issue," Williams old the Houston Chronicle.
Panetti's last mental health evaluation was in 2007. The case has been marked by what seem like curious decisions from the beginning, when Panetti, dressed in a cowboy costume, was allowed to represent himself at trial to a few weeks ago when his lawyers learned belatedly from the news media that Dec. 3 had been set as the execution date.
Joe and Amanda Alvarado were gunned down in their home in Fredericksburg in 1992 as Panetti's estranged wife and their daughter watched.