The state of Texas plans to execute a man named Scott Panetti on Dec. 3. On Tuesday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals rejected lawyers' request to delay the execution; Panetti's lawyers argue that their client is too incompetent to be put to death. Panetti has decades of noted mental illness, including a diagnosis of schizophrenia and several involuntary commitments in mental hospitals. Roughly 19 years ago, he murdered his estranged wife’s parents; that much is not up for debate. The issues up for debate are the validity, the constitutionality and the sheer morality behind the decision to put someone to death who knows not what he does.
At his trial, Panetti represented himself. Attempting to echo a character from western films, he donned a purple cowboy suit. He also subpoenaed hundreds of deceased, fictional or outlandish witnesses, including but not limited to the Pope, Jesus Christ, John Kennedy and Anne Bancroft. When he took the stand, he assumed his more cantankerous alter ego, “Sarge,” and began making threats. Some reports claim the jury was so terrified of him that they handed him a death sentence in order to preclude his re-entry into society. (At the time, the option of life without the possibility of parole was absent in Texas.)
The Supreme Court finally overturned Panetti’s death sentence in a 2007 case bearing his name, ruling that mentally ill inmates can’t be executed unless they understand why. However, in its style of judicial restraint, the justices merely remanded the case to the lower courts, with instructions to more strictly judge his competency for execution. Despite multiple medical professionals reaching the same conclusion that Panetti is severely mentally ill, Texas went ahead and cleared him for execution again nonetheless.
All this is not to say that Panetti is not culpable for his actions. He understands, at a very basic level, the difference between right and wrong. But he does not fully understand that the murder is directly connected to his impending death at the hands of state officials, which defies the standard the Supreme Court rightly set. Panetti believes the government is attempting to martyr him for preaching his version of the gospel.
We believe that, in all cases, capital punishment is an immoral, unconstitutional and indefensible deprivation of life from this country’s denizens. Perhaps that is why the United States is the last country in the western world to not abolish the barbaric and medieval act. But whatever your impressions on capital punishment in general, the killing of a severely mentally ill man who does not understand the accusations levied against him or the reality he lives in comes perilously close to simple murder.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since its original posting.