Texas death row inmate Scott Panetti has a new chance to prove that he’s ineligible for execution, thanks to the work of attorney and law professor Greg Wiercioch.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed the decision of a lower court to rule in Panetti’s favor earlier this month, when it ordered the provision of federal funds for a competency review. Until the ruling, Panetti couldn’t afford to hire the attorney or mental health experts necessary to launching a competency challenge to his death sentence.
Panetti, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, was sentenced to death in 1995 for the murders of his wife’s parents. Wiercioch, a clinical professor at University of Wisconsin Law School, has worked on Panetti’s death penalty appeal since 2003.
The case sparked a national debate over mental illness and the death penalty, one that Wiercioch took all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2007. He successfully argued in Panetti v. Quarterman that criminal defendants may not be sentenced to death if they do not understand the reason for their pending execution, and that once the state has set an execution date, death row inmates can litigate their mental competency in habeas corpus proceedings.
The Fifth Circuit’s ruling included special praise for Wiercioch’s efforts. “Mr. Wiercioch has, in our best traditions, served his client for years with limited resources and time,” wrote Judge Patrick Higginbotham.
A veteran of death penalty litigation, Wiercioch spent nearly 20 years defending Texas death row inmates in state and federal post-conviction proceedings before joining the UW Law School faculty.
In October 2014, Wiercioch learned — not from a judge or prosecutors, but from a newspaper article — that Panetti’s execution date had been set for December of that year. He rushed to file a motion for a stay of execution, which was ultimately granted just six hours before Panetti’s scheduled execution.
How does Wiercioch manage the pressures of representing death row clients? He credits the university’s support for his ongoing death penalty work, and especially thanks his Law School colleagues who have helped him review his briefs and prepare for oral arguments. And, he says, “You have to be tireless in your preparation, in your motion practice, in reviewing every record for anything that can help you, so that when the planets align, you’re ready.”
According to Carrie Sperling, it’s that kind of preparedness that makes Wiercioch a success, both as a lawyer and a teacher. Says Sperling, an associate dean at UW Law School, “Greg is the model of what you’d want to teach all of your law students, and the Fifth Circuit’s commendation is what we want courts to write about our students.”
Submitted by Law School News on August 3, 2017