President Barack Obama greets Dr. Joel C. Hunter, senior pastor of Northland, A Church Distributed, during the Easter Prayer Breakfast in 2014 at the White House in Washington.(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) This story was co-published with the Marshall Project.
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Court Stops Execution of Mentally Ill Man Defended by Many Evangelicals
Evangelicals divide over the death penalty, but leaders agree on the unusual case of Scott Panetti.
More than 50 evangelical leaders often at odds recently united, asking Texas to commute the death sentence of a mentally ill inmate who believes he is being persecuted for preaching the gospel. Scott Panetti's execution was scheduled for today. This morning, an appeals court delayed his death with just hours to spare.
Shane Claiborne, David Gushee, Lynne Hybels, Joel Hunter, Sam Rodriguez, Jay Sekulow, and other conservatives and progressives signed the letter, which states that Christians are called to protect the most vulnerable and that Panetti, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia since the 1970s and murdered his in-laws to “get rid of the devil” inside them, falls into that category.
“If ever there was a clear case of an individual suffering from mental illness, this is it,” says the letter, whose other signatories include author Brian McLaren, Billy Graham Center prison ministry director Karen Swanson, Evangelicals for Social Action co-president Paul Alexander, Wheaton College’s Applied Christian Ethics Center director Vincent Bacote, former North Park Theological Seminary president John Phelan, and National Latino Evangelical Coalition (NLEC) board member Danny Diaz. “Mr. Panetti is a paranoid schizophrenic.... He believes that he is being put to death for preaching the gospel, not for the murder of his wife’s parents.”
In the decade before he murdered his in-laws in 1992, Panetti, now 56, was hospitalized at least a dozen times for schizophrenia, manic depression, hallucinations, and delusions of persecution, The New York Times reports. During his trial, Panetti won the right to represent himself, and tried to subpoena Jesus, the Pope, and John F. Kennedy in court. His attorneys say he described his death sentence as “spiritual warfare.”
“These delusions are that the prison wants to kill him to prevent him from preaching the gospel on death row or telling others about corruption,” Kathryn Kase, executive director of Texas Defender Service which represents Panetti, told Time. “We’re not psychologists. We’re not mental health professionals. But we do know we’re seeing something really terrible happen.”
Earlier this year, a botched execution in April led to some evangelical outcry: NLEC president Gabe Salguero called for a change in capital punishment, while RNS columnist Jonathan Merritt pointed out for the Atlantic that “only five percent of Americans believe Jesus would support the government’s ability to execute the worst criminals.”
In 1998, evangelicals noticeably rallied to lobby for Karla Faye Tucker, a death row inmate in Texas who converted to Christianity while in prison, notes Mother Jones. After the 2011 execution of Troy Davis in Georgia, CT looked at the religious divide over the death penalty.
"This is the largest outpouring of support on a death penalty case we've seen from evangelicals, and you can see why, given the ridiculous nature of this case," Heather Beaudoin, a spokesperson for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, told Mother Jones. "A lot of folks who signed this [clemency] letter might have given pause about signing on to a letter opposing the death penalty generally, but they think we have no business executing Scott Panetti."
The New York Times editorial board argued that a “civilized society” that kills Panetti “cannot pretend to be adhering to any morally acceptable standard of culpability,” and a Change.org petition organized by Victoria Panetti on behalf of her brother garnered over 90,000 signatures.
Earlier this month, Panetti’s lawyers filed for a stay on the grounds that the defendant’s mental state had deteriorated since 2007, the year of his last competency hearing. While Texas governor Rick Perry can commute death penalty sentences, he can only do so after a recommendation from the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, which voted Monday to continue the execution. In a 5-4 ruling last Tuesday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied the motion on jurisdictional grounds. More details about the case and the Supreme Court’s 2007 ruling which blocked Panetti’s execution can be found here. RNS reports that the US Supreme Court—the final stop in cases like Panetti’s—is increasingly wary of the death penalty. In 2008, the Supreme Court mulled lethal injections as Christian support for the death penalty dropped.
CT has frequently examined the ethics of the death penalty, including how American capital punishment standards fall far below biblical guidelines, why early Christians refuted the death penalty, and why Christians don’t find bloodshed repugnant anymore. CT also published responses by three leading Christian ethicists on whether it’s biblical to be pro-life and support the death penalty, and asked whether execution can be merciful.
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.
I am one of those evangelicals who, in Professor Marcia Pally’s words, have “left the right.” As a former President-elect of the Christian Coalition of America, I resigned that position and all other positions that would box me into ideologies that were becoming insidiously narrow and negative. As a 64-year-old pastor, I may not yet be representative of my generation or profession in my political openness, but I am one of a growing number of white evangelicals who are making biblically-based decisions on an issue-by-issue basis, in a wider circle of conversations than ever. We are put off by the “hardening of the categories” that is stifling not only intellectually, but also spiritually. Part of this transition is cultural. As Professor Pally pointed out, it is not only a generational shift that naturally declares independence from traditional religious reactions (especially paternalistic ones). The transition is for others a distancing from the institutionalism of the church and the inelasticity of a movement that began as personally charitable but has become dogmatically xenophobic.
The greater part of this change, however, is a generic return to the original agenda of Christ. As the world becomes more complex and less predictable, we are seeing a “back to basics” trend. It is an expansion beyond a preoccupation with the more recent monitoring of sexual matters, to a more ‘whole life’ helpfulness. It is the turn from accusation to compassion, and it is much in keeping with the priorities and example of Jesus. His focus on helping the most vulnerable is also our concern. Thus more and more evangelicals are expanding the definition of pro-life. They are including in a pro-life framework concern with poverty, environmental pollution, AIDS treatment, and more. And issues like abortion are being expanded from focusing on only “in utero” concerns—increasing numbers of evangelicals now see prevention of unwanted pregnancy and support for needy expectant mothers as pro-life.
More evangelicals simply want to live our lives according to our spiritual values—unselfishness, other-centeredness, non-presumptuousness—so that when people see “our good works, they will give glory to our Father in heaven.”
Lastly, practically all sustainable change is relationally based. In an increasingly connected world, an increasing number of evangelicals are developing a broader range of relationships, both interfaith and inter-lifestyle. These make us think twice before we declare those who have different values as adversaries. As we “love our neighbor,” we want to cooperate in ways that express our own values while allowing others to express their own.
Professor Pally has established a masterful and nuanced summary of the change in the evangelical political voice. I hope that we will continue the dialogue.
FIND THIS ARTICLE AT: http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/2013/01/16/a-return-to-the-original-agenda-of-christ/
Robertson, chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network and former Republican presidential candidate, said he wouldn't "put a guilt trip" on someone for divorcing a spouse with Alzheimer's disease, calling Alzheimer's itself "a kind of death."
The remarks sparked outrage throughout religious and medical communities.
"I'm just flabbergasted," said Joel Hunter, senior pastor of the 15,000 member Northland Church in Orlando, Fla. "I just don't know how anyone who is reading Scripture or is even familiar with the traditional wedding vows can come out with a statement like that. Obviously, we can all rationalize the legitimacy for our own comfort that would somehow make it OK to divorce our spouse if circumstances become very different or inconvenient. ... That's almost universal, but there's just no way you can get out of what Jesus says about marriage."
Hunter, who is also a presidential appointee to an advisory council on faith-based and neighborhood partnerships, said Robertson's words could lead people to interpret typical marital woes as proof that the spouse they married is symbolically dead, and they are therefore free to move on.
"Obviously, you could do this for anything. ... My husband watches and plays video games and so he has left the marriage and it's kind of like a death," he said. "It's not death and so we can't start describing things as death that are really not death and we have to stop trying to mischaracterize what scripture says for our own convenience."
Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, said marriage is a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman that calls for faithfulness in the best of times and the worst of times. Quoting Corinthians, Kropp said "The wife's body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband. In the same way, the husband's body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife. You can't quit your own body with Alzheimer's so you shouldn't quit your husband's or wife's body either."
Doctors and social workers who work with families affected by Alzheimer's disease were similarly dismissive of Robertson's advice.
"To condone abandoning one's spouse in the throes of this mind-robbing illness is absurd," said Dr. Amanda Smith, medical director at the University of South Florida Health Alzheimer's Center in Tampa. "While Alzheimer's certainly affects the dynamic of relationships, marriage vows are taken in sickness and in health."
An estimated 5.4 million Americans have Alzheimer's disease – a figure expected to rise sharply as baby boomers enter their older years. And about 80 percent of Alzheimer patients who live at home are cared for by family members.
Robertson's comments came after a viewer asked what advice he should give a friend who had been seeing another woman since his wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer's.
"I know it sounds cruel, but if he's going to do something, he should divorce her and start all over again, but make sure she has custodial care and somebody looking after her," Robertson said.
But the Rev. A.D. Baxter, a social worker with Cole Neuroscience Center at the University of Tennessee Medical Center, said care from a loved one is irreplaceable.
"When being cared for by a spouse, the love of that spouse is often what enables a person with Alzheimer's disease to continue on and not feel abandoned," said Baxter, adding that caregivers need support, too. "Many believe a true friend does not abandon in the time of need."
Alzheimer's Strains Relationships
The progressive symptoms of Alzheimer's can put stress on relationships, leaving caregivers to cope with the loss of intimacy and other aspects of adult romantic relationships, said Dr. Jason Karlawish, a professor of medicine and medical ethics and assistant director of the Penn Memory Center in Philadelphia.
"There's no question that this is an issue," said Karlawish. "But to a spouse who's struggling with this kind of issue, I would want to say after the patient has left this world, you want be able to look back and say you treated that person with dignity."
New technologies are making it possible to diagnose Alzheimer's disease earlier, while patients have the ability to understand the road ahead of them.
"I think this highlights the need for couples and families to have discussions early in any illness, and preferably before illness strikes so that person's decisions and preferences are known and respected," said David Loewenstein, a clinical neuropsychologist at University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine.
Robertson's advice was for a male caregiver. But sometimes it's the patient who wants to start a new relationship.
"I have seen both caregivers and patients enter into new relationships during the course of dementia. How they choose to handle it is up to them. All parties dealing with this disease suffer to some extent and deserve to find happiness," said USF's Smith. "Ultimately, the decision for any couple to divorce, for any reason, is a private and difficult one."
Some couples stay married but form new relationships, too.
"There are many spouses who are devoted to the affected person with Alzheimer's, and yet form new relationships as they also care for their spouse," said Darby Morhardt, a social worker and director of education at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. "It's hard to negotiate living with Alzheimer's disease but dictating what's good and bad is not useful.
"Every person needs to make their own decisions and to consider all parties involved. I sincerely hope the good reverend never has to have Alzheimer's to experience his advice first hand."
Tim King, spokesman for the Christian organization Sojourners, said Robertson's controversial statement was encouraging in at least one regard.
"I'm actually encouraged to hear someone like Pat Robertson say we're not really in a position to judge another person," King said. "I can't imagine the difficulty that a spouse would have to see someone go through that type of change and transformation. ... I don't know anyone who is in the position to judge another type of person who is having to make those type of decisions. It should never be taking lightly; it should never be an easy decision. Dealing with marriage is serious and making a big decision like that should be hard."
A representative for Robertson's network told the Associated Press that there would be no further comment on the matter.
Part 7 in a series of teachings from Dr. Joel C. Hunter about how to approach today’s issues biblically, respectfully and effectively.