On the eve of the slated execution in Texas of a mentally ill inmate who is said not to understand why he is to die, United Nations human rights officials have stepped in and urged the state government to spare his life.
“There is no doubt that it is inherently cruel and unworthy of civilized societies to execute persons with mental disabilities,” said Juan E. Méndez, U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, in a statement Tuesday.
It comes as Texas prepares to execute Scott Panetti, who received a capital sentence in 1995 for the murder of his wife’s parents. Defense attorneys argue that Panetti committed the crime due to a debilitating mental illness, and that his psychological state makes him unfit to be executed.
Their attempts to save his life got them as far as the Supreme Court, which in 2007 ruled that Panetti could only be killed if he was found to possess a “reasonable understanding” of the reasons for his execution. The court had previously ruled, in a separate case, that it is unconstitutional to kill an inmate who is too mentally ill to be aware of his impending execution or the reasons for it.
After ruling in favor of Panetti, justices returned the matter to the lower courts. Texas prosecutors argued that Panetti did pass the “reasonable understanding” test, although his defense attorneys maintain that he has no idea why the state intends to put him to death. Panetti reportedly believes he will be killed because the state is conspiring to stop him from preaching the Gospel to his fellow inmates.
The United Nations is not the only outside organization backing Panetti’s defense. Such disparate voices as Ron Paul, the American Bar Association and the National Alliance on Mental Illness have all spoken out in opposition to the execution. Panetti’s defense attorneys have asked both Texas Gov. Rick Perry and the United States Supreme Court to delay the execution, though neither has responded to the request as of yet.
The state of Texas typically disregards pleas for clemency when it comes to death row inmates. In January of this year, the state went so far as to execute Mexican national Edgar Tamayo, despite the Mexican Foreign Ministry's insistence that doing so would "be a clear violation of the United States' international obligations."
“We believe that justice requires that Mr. Panetti’s execution be stayed until complete and current information about his mental health has been thoroughly considered by a judge to determine whether Mr. Panetti is competent to be executed,” wrote American Bar Association President William C. Hubbard in a November letter addressed to Gov. Perry.
Absent of any stay of execution, Panetti’s death sentence will be carried out at 6 p.m. local time at the state penitentiary in Huntsville.