A federal appeals court has halted Texas’ execution of convicted killer Scott Panetti, who, while allegedly suffering from religious delusions, murdered his wife’s parents.
The appeals court considered Panetti’s history of mental illness in ruling that he may be exempt from execution. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled nearly 30 years ago that mentally incompetent persons could not be executed as that would be cruel and unusual punishment prohibited under the Eighth Amendment.
Justice can have some very fine lines, and determining mental fitness for execution is certainly one of them. In addition to insanity, courts have ruled that convicted murderers can be too young, or have too low an IQ to receive the death penalty. This leads to some interesting questions about rehabilitation, guilt and innocence, and public safety.
A person can commit horrific crimes, claim innocence due to insanity, and eventually rejoin society as a free person.
Last month, convicted murderer Theodore LeLeaux, who, in 1984 murdered a coworker, cut out his heart and put it in his jacket, was paroled in San Luis Obispo County by a judge who decided he was rehabilitated. LeLeaux had claimed he suffered a psychotic delusion when he committed the savage murder. But he is all right now? Really? If Charles Manson is all right now should he be released into society?
It can all be a bit ironic. If Panetti is too crazy to execute, then maybe his murder conviction should be overturned. Then, he could be retried, found innocent by reason of insanity, and afterward if he could convince some judge that he was no longer insane he could be a free man. So, one can be crazy enough to commit murder, but too crazy to be fully punished for it.
How can it be accurately determined who is or is no longer a psychotic killer? And what is insanity anyway? Panetti’s defense is that he suffered from psychotic religious delusions; you know, the devil made him do it.
It can be argued that all religious beliefs are delusions; therefore any religious person committing a crime could be innocent by reason of insanity. So, all those Islamic State barbarians butchering people in the name of god could be innocent. They simply suffer from religious delusions.
It challenges both the notions of logic and justice that some people committing murder are evil and deserve punishment, including the death penalty, while others are mentally ill and deserve rehabilitating therapy. If the latter are innocent and not evil, then there is no guilty party; the murder victims are simply victims of an unfortunate accident. That can be difficult for the victims’ loved ones to accept. Somehow a tree falling on daddy is not the same as some lunatic cutting out daddy’s heart.
While some murders are committed out of mercy, as when someone kills a loved one who is suffering a painful terminal illness and wants to die, most murders are either cold-blooded or acts of rage. Why are they not acts of insanity? What is sane about cold-blooded or enraged murder? All such murderers are crazy, so why is it OK to execute any of them and not all of them?
However, who is nuts and who is not isn’t the most critical issue in deciding justice for murder, the death penalty itself is. While the courts are deliberating over whether a murderer is sane or not, or who is too young or not smart enough to execute, or what method of execution is constitutional, the larger problem is the many instances of failed justice that result in wrongful convictions. Time and time again innocent people have been sent to death row.
Unless justice can be absolutely infallible, all cops and prosecutors honest, and all juries impartial, the death penalty is not appropriate. With police around the country executing people on the streets with impunity, and with the federal government using drones to assassinate, without due process of law, U.S. citizens, we sure don’t need more state-sanctioned executions by a fallible, sometimes corrupt, judicial system.
The widespread police thuggery, the emerging police state that spies on and bullies the public, the twisted justice that punishes victimless drug users while it ignores fraudulent bankers who victimize millions of people has made American justice suspect. Public trust in the judicial system is in jeopardy.
Justice in America is the best money can buy, and for that reason and others it is not always impartial, honest or fair. It is certainly not infallible. Allowing such a system to put people to death is not only barbaric; it is a lethal threat to every citizen.