Scott Panetti

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

On May 15, a federal jury in Massachusetts sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev -- one of the bombers in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing -- to death. The federal government has only executed 3 men since Massachusetts abolished capital punishment in 1984, making both the execution and the state of its trial fascinating. In Texas, however, capital punishment is so incorporated into the normative political and social fabric that it does not receive the scrutiny that would be given in the rest of the country. We hope Texans can use the shocking nature of the Tsarnaev case as an opportunity to re-examine our own state’s enactment of and culture surrounding capital punishment.

Texas has a proclivity for capital punishment. There have been 524 executions in Texas since 1984, the year Massachusetts abolished the death penalty. This year, Texas has already executed seven inmates, half of the national total. In the period between 1973-2013, Texas had the second highest percent of death sentences resulting in execution, rather than exoneration or dismissal, at 47 percent, which is 3.5 times higher than the national average of 13% over the same period.

Of course, the numbers keep adding up. On May 12, Texas carried out its last execution. The next will take place on June 3.

Though Texas’ huge volume of capital punishment is undoubtedly an ethical concern, the Texas court system presents a unique challenge to carrying out capital punishment justly. Scott Panetti, a schizophrenic man, was nearly executed on December 3 because the Texas appellate court denied appeals against his execution that demonstrated decades of documented mental illness. However, the federal appellate court spared his life with a stay of execution a mere 12 hours before because of the overwhelming evidence previously denied by the Texas courts. Although only one case, his illuminates the widespread institutional failures of the Texas courts that so often ruin people’s lives, or even end them.

However, as Texas recently ran out of lethal injection drugs as pharmaceutical industries refuse to allow their products to be used to execute people, the main action in the State Legislature appears to be proliferation, rather than reduction, of these ethical concerns.

Last year, experimental drugs from compounding pharmacies were used as replacements nationwide, resulting in numerous botched lethal injections. As a result of these well-documented botches, compounding pharmacies faced rebuke by pharmaceutical professional associations. This has forced the state to procure the pertinent drugs for executions, namely pentobarbital, by operating with an irresponsible lack of transparency. What does it say about capital punishment that preparations for it must be carried out in secret, for fear of professional sanctions?

Fittingly, a bill protecting and codifying this lack of transparency, despite multiple legal challenges against it, is the sole piece of legislation regarding capital punishment that passed this session. Senate Bill 1697, by state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, moves to block disclosure of drug manufacturers’ information from public record through the Texas Public Information Act, thereby perpetuating the culture of opacity that characterizes capital punishment in Texas.   

Texans must engage with our political system, yet proposals like SB 1697 eliminate ethical means of doing that by minimizing opportunities to shed light on and reform the institution. Such behavior is a failure to the ethical responsibility expected of Texas lawmakers and courts. If an institution is too unpopular or unethical to stand out in the open, perhaps it should not stand at all.

Photo Credit: The Associated Press

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.