When Scott Panetti stood in court to defend himself against charges of killing his in-laws, he cut quite a figure. Wearing a purple cowboy costume and bandanna, he showed bizarre behavior in the courtroom. He picked one juror with the flip of a coin. He attempted to subpoena more than 200 witnesses, including John F. 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. Panetti had a documented history of mental illness going back to when he was 20 years old. He has been hospitalized involuntarily on 14 occasions. His diagnoses included chronic schizophrenia, paranoia, hallucinations and fragmented personality, for which he was prescribed high doses of powerful psychiatric drugs. 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 committing the offense that landed him on death row.
In 1986, 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 in 1992 when he killed his wife’s parents.
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,” which he did in the bizarre manner we’ve described. He was convicted and is scheduled to be executed Wednesday.
We are leaders in the conservative movement, and no one could accuse us of being soft on crime. 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 execution is the only appropriate and proportional response. But Scott Panetti’s is no such case. He 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 Panetti would only serve to undermine the public’s faith in a fair and moral justice system.
Now just a day 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, and we urge the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to recommend to Gov. Rick Perry that he commute Panetti’s death sentence.
⦁ Brent Bozell is founder and president of the Media Research Center and chairman of ForAmerica. Pat Nolan is a former California state assemblyman who served 15 years as president of Justice Fellowship. Richard Viguerie is the author of “Conservatives Betrayed” (Taylor Trade Publishing, 2006) and chairman of ConservativeHQ.com.