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An Eye for an Eye: Too Blind to See Beyond Death

by | May 13, 2015 | From Adam's Desk

The Crime and Trial

On December 3, 2014, the State of Texas will execute Scott Panetti for the cold-blooded murder of his in-laws.

Panetti’s crime is horrific. In 1995, Panetti – in a manic state, suffering from ongoing auditory hallucinations – followed the instructions of “Sarge,” shaved his head and donned camouflage, broke into his in-laws home, and shot them at close range within feet of his wife and infant child.

He took life. There is no justification for such action. Those who take life, take love: a mother’s love, a child’s love, love that was meant to make the world a better place and society cannot tolerate those who take life and deprive the world of much-needed love. However, it would be a mischaracterization to describe Panetti’s crime as a logically planned, calculated, and methodically cool crime.

In 1995, Panetti – in a manic state, suffering from ongoing auditory hallucinations – followed the instructions of “Sarge,” shaved his head and donned camouflage, broke into his in-laws home, and shot them at close range within feet of his wife and infant child.

Scott is not a callous and un-empathetic killer; he is a tragically sick man. Prior to the murders, he had been hospitalized fourteen (14) separate times, even being institutionalized for a time after swinging a sword at his wife and daughter. By the early 1990s, he had been diagnosed with severe mental illness, including delusion, paranoid schizophrenia, manic depression, and auditory hallucinations (i.e. he heard voices). He claimed that his murder victims felt no pain because God

Panetti is a man who decided to try his capital murder case on his own, without the assistance of counsel – whom he was convinced was working with law enforcement to secure his conviction. He informed the jury that “Sarge” was to blame for the murders. Scott attended his trial in a purple cowboy outfit. And he attempted to compel Jesus of Nazareth, President John F. Kennedy, and the Pope to testify on his behalf.

Not surprisingly, Panetti was found guilty and sentenced to death. At the time of his jury trial, the State of Texas did not offer jurors or the court the option of “life without parole” as a sentencing option, and at least two jurors indicated that they voted for execution solely as a means to ensure that Panetti would not pose a future threat to the public.

Understanding and Execution

While the United States Supreme Court has taken a stand and prohibited the execution of juveniles and those suffering from cognitive disabilities – still referred to in Ohio as “mental retardation” – and the Court has even held that a State cannot execute the “severely mentally ill.” The rationale for these cases rest upon a well-developed series of empirical studies which conclude, in short, that children, the mentally disabled, and the severely mentally ill do not understand or comprehend the true nature of their crimes. Constitutionally, the Court ruled that executing these individual would constitute “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibited by the Eighth Amendment.

Children are too young and have not developed the cognitive faculties to completely understand the finality of death and the consequences of their actions. Consequently, they cannot be executed. For instance, the perpetrator of the tragedy at Chardon High School who recently escaped prison in Lima, Ohio and was subsequently apprehended, cannot ever be executed for taking the lives of his classmates. Likewise, the mentally disabled do not and will not understand the nature of their actions or respect the consequences thereof.

The Court recently addressed the execution of the mentally disabled. It ruled that Florida’s death penalty statute, particularly the portion which established a 70 score IQ as the sole standard by which mental disability would be determined was unconstitutional. The justices opined that because cognitive disabilities were of such a diverse nature, defining them solely by IQ did not meet what society and modern medicine knows about the nature and extent of mental retardation. The Court determined that the statute’s narrow definition was unconstitutional and, in doing so, saved the life of a death row inmate scheduled for execution.

In stark contrast to mental disability, the Court’s rationale for overturning the executions of the severely mentally ill has been sporadic and has failed to establish any framework by which state legislatures can craft their death penalty statutes. Instead, each case that has come to the high Court have been dealt with inconsistently. In 1986, Justice Thurgood Marshall crafted an opinion that overturned a narrowly defined group of inmates’ death sentences.

From that point forward until Panetti’s 2007 appeal, the Court seemed conflicted in its opinions, oftentimes presenting diverging science and creating confusing law on the subject. However, regardless of the nature and extent of a death row inmate’s mental illness, one thing was clear: if he or she knew that he or she was about to be killed and could articulate why the state was killing him or her, there was a high likelihood that the Supreme Court would affirm the execution.

With Panetti, there seemed to be an apex in this area of the law – the modern psychological and neuropsychological medical community presented comprehensive studies, briefs and analyses for the Court to consider – and, consequently, the Court had an opportunity to set out guidelines for lower courts to evaluate the execution of the mentally ill. Instead, while the Court admittedly overturned Panetti’s execution for a short time, it instructed Texas only to kill Scott if he had a “rational understanding” of the crime he committed.

Without any determination of what constituted a “rational understanding,” Texas set about its business of rehabilitating Panetti at the expense of taxpayers for the sole purpose of his execution. So, on December 3, 2014, unless the Supreme Court or Governor of Texas intervenes, Scott Panetti will be yet another inmate passed through Texas’ fast food style of execution.

A Problem Exposed

I have no doubt that Scott Panetti killed his in-laws in the manner that Texas presented to the jury. I have no doubt that Panetti is an awful danger to society. However, his execution will do nothing for society. In 2006, the U.S. Department of Justice published a statistical analysis of those in jail suffering from mental illness. The numbers are staggering. I invite the reader to review these statistics and the study as a whole. In fact, I am posting the study with this blog for the reader’s consideration. Mental illness runs rampid through the criminal justice system.

And as our understanding of the illnesses grows, so does our awareness and prevention efforts. The vast majority of the individuals suffering from mental illness did not choose to be schizophrenic, did not choose to be manic, psychotic, or delusional. They would rather not suffer from panic disorders, dissociative disorders, or the panacea of other disorders recognized today. In fact, many of them are undiagnosed through school and employment, and many more self-medicate with alcohol and illegal drugs.

Coupled with the overwhelming poverty, lack of stable childhoods, and generational mental illness, many of these folks suffer in a manner akin to those suffering from mental disabilities. While their IQ’s are higher and their illnesses are not as obvious to a layperson or a court, they suffer just as much – if not more – than many of those cognitively disabled. These folks are veterans, college graduates, husbands, fathers, wives, daughter, and community members.

The State of Texas, with United States Supreme Court’s blessing, will kill Scott Panetti because the legislators and a majority of the Court do not fully understand the impact of mental illness on an individual’s actions, as well as their understanding of actions and consequences. Unfortunately, it may be too late for Scott. But, if anything good can come from an execution, I hope it is a call to arms for mental health advocates to join capital defense and criminal defense lawyers across the country in ensuring that these lawyers are equipped to represent clients suffering from mental illness.

A Problem Ignored

In my practice, an overwhelming number of my former and current clients suffer from mental illness. Many of them lack a diagnosis and lack the funding to seek a proper evaluation from a psychologist or neuropsychologist. Even more of them self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. This all leads to more and more crime.

Assuming that the criminal justice system’s purpose is still the correction and rehabilitation of those who step outside the boundaries of what legislators have determined classifies as “decent soecity,” we must understand and be in a position to diagnose, treat, and advocate for the mentally ill. Funding and staffing is inept, in light of the infinite size of the issue; and the longer we entirely ignore or fail to adequately address mental illness, the larger the problem will grow.

Locally, we are inundated with the drug problem that seems to dominate headlines and the county courtrooms, but we have not looked to that which belies drug use. Diagnosed – but untreated – and undiagnosed depression, ADHD, dissociative disorders, and anti-social disorders are more prevalent than a balloon of heroin or line of cocaine, and are more often than not the reason an individual chooses illegal drugs and/or crime in the first instance.

Most importantly, the lack of diagnosis, treatment, and ongoing funding for the mentally ill will directly contribute if not lead to high rates of crime. As crime grows, the discontent and divisions within our community will continue to grow. As crime grows, the greater financial burden will be placed on local taxpayers to ensure that the crime is properly investigated and charged; and also to ensure that the accused is provided with counsel, prosecuted, potentially incarcerated, and provided with all of the protected avenues of appeal.