Conservative Commentator, Texas Editorial Urge End to Death Penalty for Mentally Ill

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit will hear arguments on September 23 regarding Scott Panetti's competency to be executed. Panetti is a severely mentally ill man who represented himself at his trial wearing a cowboy costume, and attempted to subpoena the Pope, John F. Kennedy, and Jesus Christ. As the court prepares to hear Panetti's case, opinion pieces in two Texas newspapers used it to illustrate larger problems with the death penalty and mental illness. In an op-ed in The Dallas Morning News, conservative commentator Richard Viguerie said Panetti's execution would not be "a proportionate response to murder," but "would only undermine the public’s faith in a fair and moral justice system." He wrote that people with severe mental illness, like juveniles and people with intellectual disabilities, should not be executed because they have diminished capacities to understand the consequences of their actions. "The rationales for the death penalty — retribution and deterrence — simply do not apply to a severely mentally ill individual like Panetti, who believes that a listening device has been implanted in one of his teeth." Executing Panetti, Viguerie said, would be "a moral failure for conservatives." A Houston Chronicle editorial discussed Panetti's case and the case of another mentally ill capital defendant, James Calvert. A Texas court terminated Calvert's self-representation after, in the words of the editorial, Calvert "took to defending himself with a farcical style that likely did more to hurt than help his case." Just before the court terminated Calvert's self-representation, a court deputy administered an electric shock to Calvert, causing him to scream for several seconds. The editorial said that "[t]he ultimate punishment - death - merits our highest standards of care" and that "judges must carefully balance the Sixth Amendment's right to represent oneself with the guarantee of competent representation." Calling for the end of the death penalty, the editorial board wrote, "Cases like Calvert and Panetti's show how something as serious as life and death can easily be turned into a farce." 

EDITORIALS: North Carolina Newspapers Critique Execution Secrecy Law

On August 6, North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory signed a law that removed the requirement that a physician be present at executions and shrouded in secrecy many elements of the lethal injection process, including the specific drugs to be used and the suppliers of those drugs. By eliminating the physician-participation requirement, the law attempted to remove a legal hurdle that has halted executions in North Carolina since 2006. Two major state newspapers sharply criticized the new law, calling it, "macabre" and "an ugly spectacle." The Fayetteville Observer said, "We need thoughtful discussion of the issue and whether we're imposing a fair sentence or simply seeking revenge for a terrible crime. What we don't need is a General Assembly slicing away at reasonable public understanding of the state's execution protocols, instead choosing to wrap it all in secrecy." The News & Observer (Raleigh) called the law "a horribly misguided idea," citing the "gruesome outcomes" of experimental lethal injection protocols in other states. The editorial concluded, "Rather than put executions on a fast track, North Carolina should abandon them altogether."

Editorials in Major Death Penalty States Call for Its Abolition

Recent editorials from leading newspapers in three of the largest death row states critique flaws in the death penalty and call for its abolition. The Sacramento Bee quoted federal district court judge Cormac Carney's recent ruling finding California's death penalty unconstitutional because executions are so rare that they "serve no retributive or deterrent purpose." The Bee called the state's capital punishment system "an abject failure" and said, "[t]he death penalty has not worked, and never will." In the wake of the exoneration of Alfred Brown from Texas' death row, the Dallas Morning News said, "Brown’s release underscores the unacceptably high potential for killing innocent people despite clear flaws in the prosecutorial system." That editorial concluded,"The criminal justice system is too riddled with imperfections to merit reliance on a sentence that cannot be revisited or reversed once it’s carried out. Not when life without parole is an alternative." In Pennsylvania, The Harrisburg Patriot-News said, "The state should not be in the business of killing people." It urged Gov. Tom Wolf to go beyond the moratorium he imposed on the death penalty earlier this year and "seek an end to the practice entirely." Citing the rarity of executions in Pennsylvania and the difficulties in obtaining lethal injection drugs, the editorial said, "Justice can be served through imprisoning a murderer for the rest of his or her life. Vengeance against the accused is not justice."

EDITORIALS: Restarting North Carolina Executions Would Be "Unjust"

A recent editorial in The News & Observer (Raleigh, NC) has criticized legislative efforts to restart North Carolina's death penalty as "retrogressive" and "macabre."  The editorial opposes a bill that would allow executions to resume in North Carolina by "expanding the list of medical personnel who can monitor executions." In 2007, the North Carolina Medical Board said that doctor participation in executions violates professional ethics, effectively blocking any doctors from participating in executions. The new law would allow physician assistants, nurses, and emergency medical technicians to oversee executions in place of a doctor. The editorial said, "The death penalty is unnecessary, unjust and irreversible. Its use now is only an act of vengeance against a few prisoners who happened to be convicted in death penalty states and whose lawyers failed to negotiate the many legal options that could have spared them." It goes on to criticize the arbitrariness of the death penalty: "The erratic application of the death penalty makes it unfair and its unfairness is dangerously compounded by its finality. Wrongly convicted people could be executed and likely have been." It concludes, "The state Senate should reject this bill and, if necessary, Gov. Pat McCrory should veto it. Lives, perhaps even innocent lives, will depend on it."

EDITORIALS: New York Times Sees "Alarming" Link Between Official Misconduct and Death Penalty Mistakes

In an editorial on April 13, the New York Times described the death penalty as "cruel, immoral, and ineffective at reducing crime" and called it "so riddled with error that no civilized nation should tolerate its use."  The Times described how prosecutorial misconduct and an "all-too-common mind-set to win at all costs" played a substantial role in the convictions of many of the 152 innocent men and women who have been exonerated after beingly wrongly sent to death row and had contributed to the execution of at least two death-row inmates who almost certainly were innocent. "Innocent people get convicted for many reasons, including bad lawyering, mistaken identifications and false confessions made under duress," the editorial said. "But as advances in DNA analysis have accelerated the pace of exonerations, it has also become clear that prosecutorial misconduct is at the heart of an alarming number of these cases." The Times noted that "In the past year alone, nine people who had been sentenced to death were released — and in all but one case, prosecutors’ wrongdoing played a key role."  Read full editorial below.

EDITORIALS: Four National Catholic Journals Urge End to Capital Punishment

In an unusual joint editorial on March 5, four national Catholic publications called for an end to the death penalty in the U.S. The editors of America, National Catholic Register, National Catholic Reporter, and Our Sunday Visitor urged "the readers of our diverse publications and the whole U.S. Catholic community and all people of faith to stand with us and say, 'Capital punishment must end.'" Citing opposition to the death penalty in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and statements by Popes John Paul II and Francis, the editorial said, "The practice is abhorrent and unnecessary. It is also insanely expensive, as court battles soak up resources better deployed in preventing crime in the first place and working toward restorative justice for those who commit less heinous crimes." The publications concluded: "We join our bishops in hoping the [Supreme] court will reach the conclusion that it is time for our nation to embody its commitment to the right to life by abolishing the death penalty once and for all."

STUDIES: Lynchings in America Related to Racial Bias in Death Penalty

A new report from the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) of Alabama has documented more lynchings in American history than previously reported, particularly of African Americans in the South, and has drawn parallels between this practice and the modern death penalty. According to EJI, the report--titled Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror --"makes the case that lynching of African Americans was terrorism, a widely supported phenomenon used to enforce racial subordination and segregation." The report draws connections between lynchings and abuses in the criminal justice system that persist today: "[L]ynching reinforced a narrative of racial difference and a legacy of racial inequality that is readily apparent in our criminal justice system today. Mass incarceration, racially biased capital punishment, excessive sentencing, disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities, and police abuse of people of color reveal problems in American society that were shaped by the terror era." (emphasis added). A New York Times editorial about the report made a similar point: "The researchers argue, for example, that lynching declined as a mechanism of social control as the Southern states shifted to a capital punishment strategy, in which blacks began more frequently to be executed after expedited trials. The legacy of lynching was apparent in that public executions were still being used to mollify mobs in the 1930s even after such executions were legally banned."

EDITORIALS: St. Louis Post-Dispatch Voices Death Penalty Opposition Even in Murder of Fellow Journalist

A recent editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reiterated its opposition to the death penalty, even as Missouri prepares to execute the man convicted of killing a former Post-Dispatch reporter. Marcellus Williams is scheduled to be executed on January 28 for the murder of Lisha Gayle (pictured), who left her job as a journalist three years before she was killed. The paper noted Gayle's likely opposition to the death penalty: "It would be surprising, in light of her other causes and passions, if Lisha herself was a death penalty supporter." It then catalogued its own reasons for opposing capital punishment: "It is expensive — each case costs about $1 million more to prosecute than a capital case where the death penalty is not sought, according to one study. It serves no deterrent purpose. It can’t help but be imposed arbitrarily and capriciously. Occasionally innocent people are put to death. Occasionally, executions are botched and inmates suffer cruel and unusual pain."