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November, 2014



Texas’ Quest to Execute Scott Panetti

On December 3rd, 2014, the state of Texas is planning to execute Scott Panetti, who was convicted and sentenced to death for the 1992 murders of his in-laws.  The execution date, which was made in secret unbeknownst to Panetti’s attorneys, comes despite his attorneys’ consistent argument that Panetti is not competent to be executed because of his severe and persistent mental illness.

Scott Panetti has suffered from schizophrenia for over 30 years, having been hospitalized 13 times prior to his arrest in 1992.  During his trial, he rejected a plea deal for a life sentence and was allowed to represent himself throughout the proceedings, where he attempted to subpoena over 200 witnesses including Jesus Christ, the Pope, and John F. Kennedy. During the trial, Panetti often doodled on legal documents while wearing a cowboy costume for the duration of the trial.  While on death row, his condition has grown increasingly worse and he continues to suffer from paranoid delusions.  Known as “The Preacher” to others on death row, Panetti believes that he is being executed by the state because Satan wants to put an end to him telling others about Jesus Christ.

Despite these presenting psychotic features of severe mental illness and the testimonies of family and medical professionals to his condition, the state has not conducted a competency hearing in seven years and refuses to withdraw the execution.  A clemency petition has been filed on behalf of Panetti, urging a reprieve.

As unbelievable as Panetti’s case sounds, his is not unique.  Too many individuals sitting on death rows nationwide, and who have already been executed, have long histories of severe mental illness that the courts often refuse to acknowledge.  In Tennessee, Billy Ray Irick, who’s recently scheduled execution was delayed, has suffered from severe mental illness since childhood and exhibited psychotic symptoms in the days leading up to the murder for which he was convicted.  None of this information was presented at his trial except during his sentencing hearing, when the jury briefly heard testimony from a social worker who had worked with Irick as a child

The United States Supreme Court has recognized the need for special considerations in regards to the death penalty and severe mental illness, and in Ford v. Wainwright (1986) declared that the execution of the “insane” was unconstitutional. Still those with the most severe mental illnesses continue to be sentenced to death. The National Alliance on Mental illness (NAMI), Mental Health America, and the American Psychological Association, along with many other mental health organizations, condemn the use of capital punishment on those with severe mental illness.

Instead of spending millions of dollars to execute these very ill individuals after a horrible crime has occurred, we could spend those dollars to get citizens who struggle with these illnesses the treatment that they need. If we chose to treat people with mental illness rather than execute them, many of these crimes would never happen in the first place, sparing families and communities these senseless tragedies.

UPDATE:

A large number of conservatives have spoken out on the Panetti case, specifically asking for clemency from Governor Perry.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/01/rick-perry-scott-panetti_n_6250360.html

Still, on December 1, the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole voted 7-0 in favor of clemency for Panetti. With a little over 24 hours until his scheduled execution, the eyes of the world remain on Texas.

Sign the petition to Gov. Rick Perry asking him to spare Scott Panetti’s life:

https://www.change.org/p/gov-rick-perry-spare-my-brother-s-life-a-severely-mentally-ill-man-on-death-row

 

Photo Source: http://media1.s-nbcnews.com/j/msnbc/Components/Photos/070625/070625_panetti_hmed_8a.grid-6×2.jpg

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New Book on Nation’s Founders Debunks One More Death Penalty Myth

The average American could be forgiven for not knowing the name Cesare Beccaria, or his impact on this nation’s laws. John Bessler’s new book The Birth of American Law (Carolina Academic Press, 2014), however, seeks to change that by highlighting Beccaria’s influence upon America’s founders. Bessler’s recent Op-Ed in The National Law Journal (a free read by logging in) details Beccaria’s specific influence upon Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and others through his little-known work, On Crime and Punishments. The Italian philosopher deeply opposed the death penalty, and his work, once published into English in 1767, gained a foothold among the leaders of the burgeoning nation.

Nearly 250 years after the publishing of Beccaria’s English edition, criminal justice reform, of which the death penalty is a key part, reemerges as a major issue within American politics. None other than former President Bill Clinton recently claimed that candidates in the 2016 Presidential election would have to address these issues. In recent years, the Constitution has been a wedge in modern politics, yet Bessler’s work is a timely addition to the ongoing debate on the Founders’ intentions for the nation. Regardless, this book debunks yet another myth about the death penalty in America.

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