Courts are failing to ensure protections for mentally ill


The Appalachian Online

Dewey Mullis

Despite overwhelming evidence that Texas death row inmate Scott Panetti suffers from a debilitating mental illness, the state of Texas is eagerly pushing forward with his scheduled date of execution.

Panetti, who was convicted of capital murder in 1995, has a scheduled execution date of Dec. 3, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

This wanton evasion of basic rights stands in contrast to Supreme Court decisions and evolving human rights and ethics standards for the mentally ill as they navigate a complex justice system.

While his hearings were in session, Panetti, who fired his lawyer and decided to represent himself, could be seen wearing a cowboy costume and attempting to call the Pope, John F. Kennedy, Jesus Christ and 200 other individuals to the witness stand, according to the International Justice Project.

Now, almost two decades after his conviction and death sentence, Panetti maintains that the state of Texas is trying to execute him for preaching the Gospel.

What may sound like a scene from a movie is actually the tragic story of a man suffering from grandiose ideas and delusions – the hallmark of severe paranoid schizophrenia.

Following the denial of multiple requests for competency hearings, The U.S. Supreme Court decided that Panetti’s rights had been violated and his delusions may remove his perspective far enough from common understanding that his actual understanding of the punishment is questionable, according to Justia case law.

The Death Penalty Information Center lists the American Psychiatric Association, Mental Health America, the American Bar Association, dozens of former judges and prosecutors, and more than 50 prominent religious leaders that have called on Texas Gov. Rick Perry to intervene in the execution.

Panetti has become the face for justice scholars and mental health professionals concerned with the ethics of execution.

Beyond the state’s blatant disregard for an act declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, Panetti’s case raises issues concerning the ethics of executing the mentally ill.

Common knowledge and proceedings issue that defendants must be considered innocent until proven guilty. But with regard to the potentially mentally ill, there must be an added standard of identification as sane before sentenced to death.

To execute an individual who has no realistic concept of the charges they face or the punishment that has been allocated to them is unethical and contradictory to what are said to be the goals of the justice system – protecting individuals from injustice.

Thus far, the manner in which Panetti and his case have been treated by the justice system is unjust, and lacks fairness and consistency.

Furthermore, to carry out a punishment on someone who has no realistic concept of the circumstances at hand would undermine the goals of punishment set forth by the public and law.

The level of one’s competency  must be attributed to assessing their culpability for the crime they have been accused or convicted of.

If someone has no realistic understanding of their punishment, perhaps they also lack the capacity to understand the circumstances before, during and after the commission of the crime.

The extent of Panetti’s illness is clear and should be immediate and unquestioned cause for, if anything, having his sentence commuted to natural life.

But for the growing number of mentally ill that pass through the justice system, there must be ethical and consistent standards to ensure that justice and punishment have a clear and realistic purpose to the condemned.

Mullis, a senior criminal justice major from Wallburg, is an opinion writer.

Correction: In the previous version of this article, published in the Nov. 20, 2014 edition of The Appalachian, the name of Scott Panetti was misspelled. The Appalachian apologizes for this error.