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Killing the mentally ill


Update: The 5th Circuit has stayed Panetti’s execution.

Scott has already written about the appalling case of Scott Panetti, a severely mentally ill man who is scheduled to be executed tomorrow by the state of Texas. There seems to be no real doubt that Panetti has been a deeply delusional paranoid schizophrenic for decades, and was fully in the grip of his illness when he killed his in-laws in 1992. (Claims by prosecutors that he is faking are, in the face of a mountain of evidence, including more than a dozen psychiatric hospitalizations, frivolous on their face).

Panetti’s case is so egregious that a coalition of prominent conservatives, many of them death penalty supporters, are calling on Texas governor Rick Perry to do what he can to commute Panetti’s death sentence (Although Perry doesn’t have unilateral authority to do so, he can grant a stay and put pressure on the Texas Board of Pardons, whose members he appoints, to grant a commutation).

This week, the list of conservative supporters grew as more prominent figures sent a new letter to Perry urging clemency. Among those signing: former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli; Dave Keene, opinion editor of the Washington Times; Reagan biographer Craig Shirley; American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray; Floyd Brown—best known as the producer of the famous Willie Horton ad during the 1988 presidential campaign; longtime Republican National Committee member Morton Blackwell; Maggie Gallagher, the former head of the anti-gay marriage group National Organization for Marriage, and many others. They write, “Mr. Panetti is one of the most seriously mentally ill prisoners on death row in the United States. Rather than serving as a measured response to murder, the execution of Mr. Panetti would only serve to undermine the public’s faith in a fair and moral justice system.” . . .

It’s also unusual for conservative Christians to support a clemency petition like Panetti’s. The last time evangelicals really rallied en masse to prevent a pending execution was in 1998, in the case of Karla Faye Tucker, who converted to Christianity in prison and became a conservative cause célèbre. Despite the pleadings of evangelicals such as Pat Robertson, then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush, went ahead with the execution, and Tucker became the first woman executed in the state since 1863.

The Panetti case is different. His religious fervor is the product of a brain disorder, and the evangelicals’ opposition to his execution is not related to his religious proclamations. It is more of a reflection of the shift in public attitudes regarding capital punishment that has been driven by the growing number of exonerations of death row inmates, the high number of mentally ill and disabled people sentenced to die, and the inefficient and expensive administration of capital punishment. “A lot of conservatives are late to realize that the whole criminal-justice system is part of the government,” says Richard Viguerie, a prominent conservative leader and an ardent opponent of the death penalty.

In fact even the most directly affected survivor of Panetti’s violence — his ex-wife, the daughter of Panetti’s victims — has said she believes he is deeply sick and should be spared.

The only real advocate for killing a man who is, mentally and morally speaking, a helpless victim of his illness, is the faceless nameless “criminal justice system,” that moves forward inexorably towards its predetermined destination.

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