A group of self-described conservative policy experts and "thought leaders" say that executing a mentally ill Texas murderer would violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment and undermine public trust in the justice system.
Calling themselves the "National Conservative Movement Leaders," the group -- which includes the former attorneys general of Virginia and New Mexico, the Reagan-era chief of the Office of Management and Budget, and an opinion editor with the right-leaning Washington Times -- filed a legal brief in support of death-row inmate Scott Panetti Wednesday. In its brief, the group urged the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to grant Panetti's legal team's request for a new mental health evaluation in order to bolster their claim that Panetti is indeed too insane to be executed.
The brief is just the latest in the mind-bending debate over whether Panetti, a man with a history of treatment for mental illness who ruthlessly shotgunned his mother- and father-in-law to death in 1992, is competent enough for the ultimate punishment.
At trial, during which Panetti was somehow allowed to represent himself and simultaneously argue an insanity defense, Panetti donned a purple cowboy suit. He rambled throughout the court proceedings, at one point questioning a witness about "the difference between a rodeo hand and a buckaroo poet." He subpoenaed Jesus Christ.
Ultimately a jury didn't buy Panetti's insanity defense and sentenced him to death. In November of last year, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that Panetti was fit to be executed. An outgoing Republican judge on the court disagreed so vehemently that he penned a dissent saying he now no longer believes in the death penalty.
"It is inconceivable to me how the execution of a severely mentally ill person such as [Panetti] would measurably advance the retribution and deterrence purposes purportedly served by the death penalty," wrote Judge Tom Price.
The case now stands before the Fifth Circuit, which halted Panetti's execution hours before he was set to be put to death in December.
Panetti's lawyers argue Panetti understands that, officially, he's been sent to death row for the murder of his in-laws, but that in reality Panetti's mind is so warped that he believes his punishment is just a pretext and cover for the truth: that prison officials are the pawn of Satan, who wants Panetti to die so he'll stop preaching the gospel.
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Panetti's attorneys insist his that his mental state has only further deteriorated since his last mental health evaluation seven years ago. Among Panetti's more recent delusions, according to court filings: a belief that prison officials have implanted a listening device in Panetti's tooth to send commands and messages to his brain; that Panetti reads the Gospel to keep from being overwhelmed by the voices in his head; that CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer flashed Panetti's stolen prison ID card during a broadcast; that Panetti is indeed the father of actress and singer Selena Gomez.
In their brief, the "National Conservative Movement Leaders" insist that the objections from Panetti's legal team are not just frivolous, last-minute stalling tactics, despite claims to the contrary. In fact, the conservative supporters point out how a state district court on October 16, 2014 set Panetti's execution date for December 3 and never alerted the convict's lawyers. "Disturbingly, no one at the state trial court, the county district attorney's office, or the state Attorney General's office saw fit to inform Panetti's lawyers that the execution date had been set," they write (Panetti's lawyers only found out about the execution date two weeks after the court had scheduled it because of a newspaper article).
Urging the Fifth Circuit to grant Panetti's lawyers request for a new competency evaluation, the group writes, "this case presents the Court with overwhelming evidence of the justice system's failure to adhere to American constitutional principles of due process."
Some of the conservative group's members support the death penalty; others don't. "They are united, however, in their belief that the execution of Scott Panetti would serve no penological purpose and would in no way promote public safety," according to their brief. "Rather than serving as a proportionate response to murder, the execution of Panetti would only undermine the public's faith in a fair and moral justice system."