Texas bishops argue death-row inmate too mentally ill to be executed

Appealing to Gov. Rick Perry "as a man of deep Christian values," the Texas Catholic Conference urged him to stay the Dec. 3 execution of Scott Louis Panetti and commute his sentence to ensure the inmate receives the proper medical treatment for mental illness.

"Our request for mercy in this case is motivated not only by the Catholic Church's active opposition to the death penalty as a desecration of human life, but also in part by Mr. Panetti's circumstances," said the conference, which is the public policy arm of the state's Catholic bishops.

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According to an AP story, Panetti has been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. For several years leading up to the 1992 murders he was convicted of committing, he was hospitalized several times for mental illness. At times, he believed he was in a spiritual war with the devil.

Panetti was found guilty of capital murder and sentenced to death by a jury in 1995 for the brutal slaying of his mother-in-law and father-in-law. AP said he never denied that he had entered their home in Fredericksburg heavily armed and shot them multiple times. At his trial, Panetti wore a cowboy costume and defended himself.

His attorneys have fought to at least get his execution postponed so he could be tested further to see if he is competent to be executed. Prosecutors claimed Panetti is faking his mental problems.

The Catholic bishops and other opponents of his execution argued that it is especially heinous to put to death someone in his mental state.

"Mr. Panetti's lengthy history of mental illness, his delusional behavior while defending himself at trial in 1995, and the multiple diagnoses from mental health professionals confirming his severe mental illness, provide even more reason to stop his execution," the Texas Catholic Conference said its Nov. 21 letter to Perry.

"While government has an obligation to protect the community from violent offenders, it also bears a responsibility to ensure justice and proper treatment for our brothers and sisters suffering from mental illness," it said. "Putting to death anyone whose faculties are so severely debilitated by mental illness as to not comprehend nor be responsible for his actions is not merely unjust, but immoral."

Abby Johnson, a former director for Planned Parenthood in Texas who quit her job in 2009 and became pro-life, is among those who have called on Perry to stop Panetti's execution.

"The execution of Panetti would be more than an embarrassment to our state. It would undermine our commitment to protecting life, especially the most vulnerable, by extinguishing the life of someone clearly suffering from mental illness," she wrote in an opinion piece in The Dallas Morning News.

The planned execution "shows a troubling disregard toward the reality of mental illness and protecting those who suffer from it," she said.

The effort to see Panetti's death sentence commuted has brought together people from both ends of the political spectrum who agree he is too mentally ill to be executed. An online petition has drawn 93,000 signatures.

Perry's office did respond to pleas he stay Panetti's sentence. As governor, he cannot act alone to commute the death sentence. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles would have to vote to recommend Perry grant clemency. However, the board recently voted unanimously to let the execution be carried out.

In its letter to Perry, the Texas Catholic Conference said the church "has tremendous sympathy" for the family of Panetti's victims. "In no way do we wish to diminish their suffering and loss."

"However, as you know, it is the parable of the good Samaritan where Jesus teaches that a true neighbor is one who shows mercy. ... Showing mercy does not mean neglecting to administer justice or punish people for their crimes," it said. "Showing mercy does mean exhibiting compassion toward all of our brothers and sisters, and providing them with an opportunity for atonement and rehabilitation."

UPDATE, from the Texas Tribune

A federal appeals court on Wednesday halted the execution of a Texas death row inmate with a history of schizophrenia, just hours before he was to be put to death in Huntsville.

A two-sentence stay was released by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, one of two courts considering appeals from Scott Louis Panetti's defense team.

"We STAY the execution pending further order of the court to allow us to fully consider the late arriving and complex legal questions at issue in this matter," the appeals court order stated. "An order setting a briefing schedule and oral argument will follow."

 

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