Later tonight, the state of Texas was set to execute a mentally ill man, and before you make any judgement on whether not the accused committed a crime heinous enough to merit the ultimate punishment, let’s take a moment to consider the entirety of the story surrounding this one condemned man who is caught in the most prolific machine of death in the United States of America.
Scott Panetti, by anyone’s definition, is a murderer. But there is more to his case than just his crime. His crime, it should be noted, was the killing of his in-laws at their Texas Hill Country home. Panetti gunned the couple down, showering his estranged wife and 3-year-old daughter in blood. Panetti himself acknowledged during his 1995 capital murder trial that he had killed Joe and Amanda Alvarado. Dressed as a cowboy, he acted as his own attorney, believing only an insane person could prove an insanity defense. Panetti, you see, has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was hospitalized for mental illness more than a dozen times in the decade leading up to the September 1992 killings of the Alvarados. Panetti was so deeply delusional at his trial that he asked the court to call three character witnesses for his defense: Jesus Christ, John F. Kennedy, and the Pope. More recently, Panetti has told psychiatrists and attorneys he believes his punishment is part of a larger Satanic plot to keep him from preaching the Gospel. Kathryn Kase, one of Panetti’s lawyers, recently said, “He cannot appreciate why Texas seeks to execute him. You have to have a rational as well as factual understanding of why you’re being executed.”
The United States Supreme Court agrees with Kase and her client, and even issued a ruling on the case in 2007. In the review of Panetti’s conviction, the justices tweaked the federal criteria for executing those with severe mental disorders by requiring inmates to not only know that they are being punished, but to also have a “rational understanding” of their punishment. Providing little guidance other than requiring a “fair hearing” for presentation of psychiatric evidence to consider insanity claims, the justices returned Panetti’s case to lower federal courts, which ultimately found him competent.
How, any rational and compassionate person might ask, can Texas even consider killing a man who is so out of touch with reality? Well, the sad truth is that we have been executing people in this country for decades who have exceptionally low IQs or a history of extreme mental disease. Better to get these “damaged goods” out of the way rather than keep them incarcerated for the remained of their lives, don’t you think? Oddly, this is exactly what Hitler and the Nazis believed, too. Is that the standard we aspire to in this country? Better living through eugenics and extermination? Does that sound like the American standard of justice we claim to represent?
This story does, however, have a happy ending, at least temporarily. Earlier today a federal appeals court issued a stay, meaning Panetti’s lawyers will have another chance to argue that the death penalty is unconstitutional in their client’s case. We can hope and pray that the courts will finally realize the injustice of executing a man as ill as Panetti. Should they not, we will have once again used the state’s imprimatur to kill a man who doesn’t even know what is happening to him. Aren’t we better than that? Time will tell.
The Huffington Post contributed to this article