Editorial: Texas should not put mentally ill man to death

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A bunch of out-of-staters are trying to tell Texas what to do.

We should listen to them.

The situation involves the upcoming execution of Scott Panetti, a 56-year-old mentally ill man convicted of murdering the parents of his second wife in 1992.

knox newEditor Marv KnoxA broad range of Christian leaders appealed on Panetti’s behalf to Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole. In a Nov. 12 letter, they expressed “grave concern” about the execution, to be conducted by lethal injection Dec. 3.

“The gospel message compels us to speak for those without a voice and to care for the most vulnerable,” their letter says, according to a report by Baptist News Global. “For this reason, it is imperative that we treat those with mental illness in a fair and humane manner.”

The letter claims Panetti’s execution “would be a cruel injustice that would serve no constructive purpose whatsoever.”

Panetti’s history of mental illness stretches across three decades. At his trial, he dressed in a cowboy suit and represented himself. He tried to subpoena Jesus, the pope and John F. Kennedy.

Overturned once

The U.S. Supreme Court overturned his death sentence because justices believed he did not understand why he was to be executed, the BNG report noted. He claimed he was being executed for preaching to other death-row inmates.

A lower court agreed with prosecutors, who said Panetti exaggerated his mental illness, and handed down another death sentence. Appeals ensued, and the Supreme Court declined to hear the case again.

Out-of-state leaders who have asked the governor and the pardon board to intervene include Sam Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference in Sacramento, Calif.; Jay Sekulow, chief counsel for the conservative American Center for Law and Justice in Washington; Shane Claiborne, a founder of the progressive The Simple Way in Philadelphia; Lynn Hybels of Willow Creek Church in the Chicago area; David Gushee, an ethicist at Mercer University in Atlanta and Macon, Ga.; and Fisher Humphreys, a retired professor at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala.

Texas signers include Charlie Johnson, executive director of Pastors for Texas Children in Fort Worth; Alan Bean, head of Friends of Justice in Arlington; Heather Mustain, associate pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas; and Stephanie True, associate pastor of University Baptist Church in Austin.

Decency demands it

Gov. Perry and the pardon board should heed the ministers’ counsel—whether it comes from outside or inside the state.

Decency demands it.

The execution of a mentally ill person—who otherwise would serve a life sentence in prison—does not protect society. It does not even provide reasonable punishment, because the condemned person does not understand the reason for his execution.

The faith leaders provided a clear case for commuting Panetti’s sentence: “When we inflict the harshest punishment on the severely mentally ill, whose culpability is greatly diminished by their debilitating conditions, we fail to respect their innate dignity as human beings. We therefore respectfully encourage you to consider granting Scott Panetti’s clemency petition and commuting his death sentence to life in prison.”

We have been discussing capital punishment for years. Texas is known around the world for its seeming bloodlust for lawbreakers. We lead the nation in executions. And if we put a mentally ill inmate to death, we further damage our tarnished reputation.

Texas, the state that takes pride in its churches and its piety, can do better than this.

Even outsiders are telling us so.

We should listen to them.

To read the Baptist News Global report on this case, click here

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