Conservatives Call On Rick Perry To Halt Execution Of Scott Panetti

12/01/2014 06:30 pm ET | Updated Dec 02, 2014

WASHINGTON -- A group of conservative leaders is mounting a last-minute effort to stop Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) from executing inmate Scott Panetti, arguing that killing "one of the most seriously mentally ill prisoners on death row in the United States" would "undermine the public's faith in a fair and moral justice system."

Panetti admitted in 1995 to having killed his in-laws three years earlier, while his wife and three-year-old daughter watched. He has suffered from schizophrenia and other mental illnesses for over 30 years and has been hospitalized on 15 separate occasions. In spite of his illness, Panetti is scheduled to be executed on Wednesday at 6 p.m. CST.

Twenty-one conservative leaders have joined with mental health and death penalty reformers in opposing the execution, asking Perry in a recent letter to commute Panetti's sentence to life in prison. Signatories included former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, conservative activist Brent Bozell and former presidential candidate Gary Bauer.

Each of us has been active at the national level of the conservative movement for many years, and no one could accuse us of being soft on crime. Among conservatives there is much debate about the effectiveness and the morality of the death penalty. Some crimes are so terrible, and committed with such clear malice, that some believe that execution seems the only appropriate and proportional response. But Scott Panetti’s is no such case. [...]

The authority to take a man’s life is the most draconian penalty that we allow our government to exercise. As conservatives, we must be on guard that such an extraordinary government sanction not be used against a person who is mentally incapable of rational thought. It would be immoral for the government to take this man’s life. Should the Board recommend it, we respectfully urge you to reduce Mr. Panetti’s death sentence to life in prison.

According to The Atlantic, Panetti had come to believe he was engaged in a battle with Satan and tried to exorcise his home by burying his furniture in the backyard. At his trial, he dressed as a cowboy and acted as his own attorney. He also tried to subpoena John F. Kennedy and the Pope.

Prosecutors have argued that Panetti is faking his illness.

Panetti's lawyers filed a motion this month asking Perry to stay the execution for 30 days in order for Panetti to receive a new mental health assessment. (He has not had one since 2007.) The lawyers said they would have filed the request earlier, but no one notified them that an execution date had been set. Instead, they had to learn about it from a newspaper article.

Unlike in other states, Perry can't single-handedly reduce Panetti's sentence -- the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles has to first recommend clemency. On Monday, however, the board unanimously voted against delaying Panetti's execution for 180 days and recommending to Perry that his sentence be commuted.

Perry's office did not immediately return a request for comment on whether the governor agreed with the board's decision or on whether he was considering a 30-day stay.

More than 93,000 people have signed an online petition asking Perry to grant Panetti clemency. He also has the support of his ex-wife and former Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).

Abby Johnson, an anti-abortion activist, wrote in a recent Dallas Morning News op-ed that opposing Panetti's execution is a pro-life position.

"A fundamental tenet of the pro-life ethic is that all life has value and we are called to protect it, especially in its most vulnerable forms. A culture of life recognizes the value of those who are vulnerable and prioritizes safeguarding them," she wrote.

"By setting an execution date for Panetti, Texas is going entirely contrary to what we expect in a society that truly values life," Johnson added. "This proposed execution shows a troubling disregard toward the reality of mental illness and protecting those who suffer from it."

Mother Jones reporter Stephanie Mencimer noted that it's "unusual for conservative Christians to support a clemency petition like Panetti's." In 1998, conservatives tried to get then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush to stop the execution of Karla Faye Tucker, who had converted to Christianity in prison. (Bush went ahead with the execution.)

But this case is different.

"[Panetti's] religious fervor is the product of a brain disorder, and the evangelicals' opposition to his execution is not related to his religious proclamations," wrote Mencimer. "It is more of a reflection of the shift in public attitudes regarding capital punishment that has been driven by the growing number of exonerations of death row inmates, the high number of mentally ill and disabled people sentenced to die, and the inefficient and expensive administration of capital punishment."

Heather Beaudoin, coordinator of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, told Mencimer that the Panetti case was "the largest outpouring of support on a death penalty case we've seen from evangelicals," and the first time she was aware of Paul personally speaking out against an execution.

If Texas goes ahead with the scheduled execution, Panetti would be the 519th person to die by lethal injection in the state since 1982.

Read the full letter below:

November 25, 2014

The Honorable Rick Perry
Office of the Governor
P. O. Box 12428
Austin, Texas 78711

Dear Governor Perry:

We respectfully ask you to commute Scott Panetti’s death sentence to life in prison if the Board of Pardons and Paroles recommends it. Mr. Panetti is one of the most seriously mentally ill prisoners on death row in the United States. Rather than serving as a measured response to murder, the execution of Mr. Panetti would only serve to undermine the public’s faith in a fair and moral justice system.

Each of us has been active at the national level of the conservative movement for many years, and no one could accuse us of being soft on crime. Among conservatives there is much debate about the effectiveness and the morality of the death penalty. Some crimes are so terrible, and committed with such clear malice, that some believe that execution seems the only appropriate and proportional response. But Scott Panetti’s is no such case.

Panetti has a documented history of mental illness going back to when he was 20 years old. In the subsequent decades he has been involuntarily hospitalized on fourteen separate occasions. His diagnoses include chronic schizophrenia, paranoia, hallucinations and fragmented personality, for which he was prescribed high doses of powerful psychiatric drugs for schizophrenia. He was termed manic and delusional. He heard voices and thought he was controlled by an unseen power. Panetti once nailed the curtains shut in his house to seal out the devil. It is clear that he has been suffering from severe mental illness since long before he committed the offense that landed him on death row.

In 1986, for example, Panetti believed he was engaged in spiritual warfare with Satan and he was convinced that the devil was in his home, leading his wife to sign an affidavit to have him involuntarily committed. She testified that he attempted to exorcize his home with a series of inexplicable behaviors, including burying his furniture in the backyard. Bizarre manifestations of his illness continued – virtually unabated – right up until the tragic day on which he killed his wife’s parents in 1992.

Despite this long record of mental illness, Panetti was found competent to be tried and to waive his right to counsel. Incredibly the Texas trial court allowed this delusional man to present his own “defense”. His courtroom behavior was bizarre. He wore a costume of a purple cowboy suit and bandana to the trial. He picked one juror with the flip of a coin. He attempted to subpoena over 200 witnesses including John Kennedy, the Pope, and Jesus Christ. He slept through some of the testimony.

This was no act cooked up to get him off of murder charges. His severe mental illness is thoroughly documented in his medical records. And his delusions persist. Now, just days away from his scheduled execution, Panetti continues to suffer from the manifestations of his mental illness, believing that he will be executed for preaching the Gospels to his fellow prisoners, not for the murder of his in-laws.

The authority to take a man’s life is the most draconian penalty that we allow our government to exercise. As conservatives, we must be on guard that such an extraordinary government sanction not be used against a person who is mentally incapable of rational thought. It would be immoral for the government to take this man’s life. Should the Board recommend it, we respectfully urge you to reduce Mr. Panetti’s death sentence to life in prison.

Sincerely,

Brent Bozell, President, For America
Ken Cuccinelli, President, Senate Conservatives Fund
Dave Keene, Opinion Editor, The Washington Times
Pat Nolan, Director Center for Criminal Justice Reform, the American Conservative Union Foundation
Richard Viguerie, Chairman, ConservativeHQ.com
Ron Robinson, President, Young America’s Foundation
Jim Miller, Budget Director for President Ronald Reagan
Craig Shirley, Reagan Biographer
C. Preston Noell, III, President, Tradition, Family, Property, Inc.
Rebecca Hagelin, Columnist, The Washington Times
Floyd Brown, President, Western Center for Journalism
Charles Murray, WH Brady Scholar, American Enterprise Institute
Patrick A. Trueman, Attorney At Law
Mark L. Earley, Sr., Former Attorney General of Virginia and
Former President and CEO of Prison Fellowship USA
Morton Blackwell, Chairman, The Weyrich Lunch
James L. Martin, Chairman, 60 Plus Association
Tricia Erickson, President, Angel Pictures and Publicity
Maggie Gallagher, Author
Diana L. Banister, President, Shirley & Banister Public Affairs
Mark Fitzgibbons, President of Corporate Affairs, American Target Advertising
Gary L. Bauer, President, American Values

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