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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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At the Death House Door

On Thursday, May 8, the Memphis TCASK chapter hosted an advanced screening of the new documentary “At the Death House Door,” directed by Steven James and Peter Gilbert. The film, produced by the Independent Film Channel, focuses on two individuals, Carroll Pickett and Carlos De Luna. Pastor Carroll Pickett served as prison chaplain of the infamous “Walls” unit in Huntsville. During his 15 year career at Huntsville he oversaw the executions of 95 death row inmates, including that of Carlos De Luna. De Luna’s case is one of the most compelling cases of a likely innocent individual being executed.

Pickett serves as a fascinating subject for a documentary. The Reverend was pro-death penalty as he began serving as chaplain at Huntsville. While the job was emotionally tolling, he believed he was taking part in something that was right. Over time, his sentiment transformed. He attributes his change to witnessing the executions of young men, the mentally retarded, and those with mentally illness (amongst many other problems with the death penalty in Texas). His transformation culminated in the case of Carlos De Luna. On December 7, 1989, the state of Texas executed Carlos De Luna. De Luna was executed for the crime of a man with very similar appearance, Carlos Hernandez. I will not get into the details of De Luna’s case or his relationship with Pickett. My description would not be worthy of the power of the film, i.e., see this documentary.

“At the Death House Door” was shown at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, TN to a crowd of nearly 50. Afterwards we held a brief discussion on the film and the topic matter it presented. Many in the audience were emotionally impacted by the personal stories of Pickett and De Luna. Although we work against the death penalty as a public policy, the personal stories of those who experience it directly are unforgettable. Although there were some differing opinions amongst the audience, they were all in agreement that a person is never too old to develop a new understanding; just ask Carroll Pickett.

The film will be shown on the Independent Film Channel on May 29 at 9 PM ET.

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