Judge Rules Death Row Inmate Can’t Be Executed

A Texas judge has ruled that a death row inmate who called Jesus and John F. Kennedy as trial witnesses is not competent to be executed. Scott Panetti has been on death row for almost 30 years, having been convicted of murdering his in-laws. US District Judge Robert Pitman ruled that Panetti was incapable of understanding the reason for his execution and ordered that he spend his life in prison instead. The convict was condemned to death for shooting his estranged wife’s parents in 1992, and his execution has been postponed twice.

Mr. Panetti has a decades-long record of mental illness and claims that the courts only imposed the death penalty to silence him because he has information about corruption and other crimes among state officials. His attorney, Gregory Wiercioch, said Panetti cannot “rationally understand the connection between his crime and his execution,” and therefore, his execution would “simply be a miserable spectacle.”

In the landmark case of Ford v. Wainwright in 1986, the US Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the execution of those with severe psychological impairments. The rationale for the ruling is sourced in English common law and holds that unless a person understands the reason for his execution, the procedure has no retributive or deterrence value.

Despite the Supreme Court ruling, death penalty observers maintain that several people with mental health concerns have been put to death in the US since 1986. In 2015, for example, 74-year-old Cecil Clayton was executed in Missouri despite having an IQ of 71 and suffering from dementia. John Ferguson was executed in Florida in 2013, even though medical records showed he had been institutionalized with paranoid schizophrenia and suffered from this illness for decades.

The Death Penalty Information Center, which does not stand on either side of the capital punishment debate, documents 23 executions throughout the US involving convicts with recognized serious psychological illnesses since 2000.