Wisconsin abolished the death penalty for all crimes in 1853, at the demand of the citizens who more than a century and a half ago recognized that the state-sponsored execution of prisoners was as barbaric as it was pointless.
Unfortunately, other states have not always been so enlightened.
There has been tremendous progress in recent years in the struggle to ban capital punishment. Recognizing that state-sponsored slayings are not just inhumane but ineffective when it comes to reducing crime, the states of Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York have over the past decade acted to bar executions.
In many cases, those states acted because of concerns that innocents had been or could be killed as part of a fundamentally flawed process that has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with the politics of vengeance.
We believe that, ultimately, the death penalty will be outlawed in the United States, as it has been in the vast majority of nations around the world. Until that happens, however, there will continue to be debates about whether particular executions are justified.
Such a debate is now playing out in Texas. At issue is whether Gov. Rick Perry will, on Wednesday, allow the execution of Scott Panetti, a Hayward, Wis., native who was raised in Poynette. Panetti, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1978, was repeatedly hospitalized before he was charged with murdering his in-laws in 1992 and convicted of the crime in 1995.
Perry should grant clemency to Panetti, commuting his sentence to life imprisonment. To do otherwise would be an extreme injustice — as the record makes all too clear.
At the time of his prosecution, Panetti was so mentally ill that he attempted to call John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ as witnesses. A judge allowed Panetti to fire his attorneys, call himself to the stand and then conduct an interrogation as attorney and witness — using different voices. Panetti conducted his defense wearing a cowboy costume.
The trial was a travesty, and executing him would be wrong not only morally but legally. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 barred the execution of individuals who lack a factual or rational understanding of why they are being put to death. The justices identified the killing of mentally impaired individuals as a violation of the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Legal and medical experts have long recognized that Panetti was severely mentally ill "before, during and after the crime for which he has been sentenced to death."
"I know very well that in so many instances, there are incredibly close and difficult calls that have to be made to either allow or prohibit the death penalty from being carried out. But Scott Panetti's plea for clemency is no such case,” says former Texas Gov. Mark White, a former state attorney general who as his state’s chief executive oversaw 19 executions. Panetti, White argues, “is a severely mentally ill man. His trial was a sham. And executing Panetti would say far more about us than it would about the man we are attempting to kill.”
White has strongly urged Perry to commute Panetti's death sentence to life imprisonment without parole.
So, too, have the American Bar Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 33 former prosecutors and U.S. attorneys general and dozens of evangelical leaders.
This week, more than 20 leading conservatives joined the call for Perry to commute Panetti's sentence to life in prison.
“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,” wrote former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, former presidential candidate Gary Bauer and veteran conservative activist Brent Bozell, among others. “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.”
The conservatives are right.
Wisconsin does not execute inmates. Texas does.
That is a profound difference between our states.
But there can and should be agreement, across state lines and the lines that separate individuals ideologically and politically, that Scott Panetti should not be executed.
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