That Scott Panetti killed his in-laws with a hunting rifle is indisputable. So is the fact that Texas plans next month to execute the man with a lengthy history of schizophrenia who defended himself at his 1995 trial dressed in cowboy togs and summoned John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ to testify. Joel Hunter, senior pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed, joined over 50 evangelical leaders who signed a letter to Texas Gov. Rick Perry decrying Panetti's execution. In an email interview, Hunter told the Editorial Board why he got involved. Excerpts follow. A longer version is online at OrlandoSentinel.com/opinion.
Q: The U.S. Supreme Court has frowned on executing the mentally ill. Why do you think Texas is pressing ahead on Panetti's execution?
A: Texas is a state that has not been sparing in executing those sentenced to death, but this case highlights the complexities of trying to implement the death penalty. Most Americans — even those who support the death penalty — do not want to see those with mental illness or intellectual disability executed. But what counts as mental illness or intellectual disability is debated, and we've seen those debates play out in both legislatures and the courts. In the Panetti case, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and leading mental-health professionals all have concluded that Panetti is severely mentally ill and, as a result, should not be executed. Unfortunately, so far Texas has not heeded the advice of the nation's and Texas' leading mental-health organizations and professionals.
Q: Panetti's lawyers say his execution "would cross a moral line." Do you agree?
A: Yes, executing Panetti would cross a moral line. Many of us have friends and family with mental illness, and understand that they do not always have full control over their actions. Their illness can render them "not themselves" in significant ways. We as a society are judged by how we treat the most vulnerable — the poor, the disabled, those with mental illness and intellectual disability. Jesus prayed from the cross, "Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do." Executing Panetti would go against Christ's plea, for the implication of an execution is that we're willing to discard the life of the disabled rather than protect it.
The mental-health community has been very clear that Panetti suffers from a 30-year history of schizophrenia. He was hospitalized more than a dozen times for psychosis and delusions in the years leading up to his tragic crime. He represented himself at trial wearing a cowboy suit. Given his condition and questions about his competence, execution would serve no constructive purpose but would rather destroy the life of a vulnerable individual. We do not believe God would condone this act of execution.
Q: How much should mental illness weigh in the tension between justice and culpability?
A: That's a difficult question. Mental-health experts and criminologists would agree that it can be difficult to find the right balance between justice and culpability. Obviously, we can't throw up our hands and say that it is impossible to make these judgments, because it is important to hold people accountable for crimes that they commit. We have to keep grappling with this issue and making sure that, as science and our understanding of mental health advance, this knowledge continually informs our criminal justice system. In Panetti's case it is clear that with his long well-documented struggles with severe mental illness, execution would be an unjust response.
Q: If not execution, how should Panetti be punished for his heinous crime?
A: Imprisonment is punishment, and it is a more appropriate response to the crimes that Panetti committed. Texas can incarcerate him and keep society secure without having to resort to an execution. Obviously, with the crime he committed and his long history of mental illness, life imprisonment would be a just sentence.
Q: Generally, what's your view of the death penalty?
A: I have moral objections to the death penalty, knowing the fallibility of our justice system and my being completely pro-life. The death penalty is ultimately incompatible with promoting a culture that recognizes the sacredness of all human life. Our nation would like to claim God's protection, but yet if we do not protect those who are most vulnerable, or who may later be found to be innocent, that is a difficult claim to make. I understand why other moral people would disagree with me on this issue, but for me, the death penalty in general is unnecessary, not a deterrent, and does not promote a culture of life and hope.
Q: Are you and the other evangelical leaders who got involved in this case in a ticklish situation, given that Panetti insists Satan is using Texas to prevent him from preaching the Gospel on death row?
A: We will be criticized for our views, but God calls on us to boldly and unapologetically defend life, which is exactly what we are doing in this case. Regarding Panetti's relationship with God, I cannot judge — only God knows the depths of his heart. Certainly, when you read the Bible, you will see that God redeemed people — David, Moses, Paul — after they had committed awful crimes. The heart of the Gospel message is that no one is beyond redemption, and that basic truth applies to those on death row.