The name of gold-plated conservative Jay Sekulow appears on the petition to spare from execution a severely mentally ill man named Scott Panetti. The founder and director of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ, a counter to the ACLU), Sekulow is a strong defender of religious liberty, Israel, and other conservative causes, and a professor at Regent University Law School. And so on.
As I say, gold-plated. Those who might be inclined to react to any defense of the condemned should be given pause by Sekulow’s endorsement. The petition, signed by several prominent Evangelicals, says in part:
As Christians, we are called to protect the most vulnerable, and we count Mr. Panetti — a man who has suffered from severe mental illness for over 30 years — to be among them. . . .
The Gospel message compels us to speak for those without a voice and to care for the most vulnerable. For this reason, it is imperative that we treat those with mental illness in a fair and humane manner.
The execution of Scott Panetti would be a cruel injustice that would serve no constructive purpose whatsoever. When we inflict the harshest punishment on the severely mentally ill, whose culpability is greatly diminished by their debilitating conditions, we fail to respect their innate dignity as human beings. We therefore respectfully encourage you to consider granting Scott Panetti’s clemency petition and commuting his death sentence to life in prison.
Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, an Assemblies of God minister named by CNN “The leader of the Hispanic Evangelical movement,” is another signer. Add to Sekulow, Rodriguez, and their peers’ appeal that of former Congressman Ron Paul. (Readers might guess how rarely I invoke Ron Paul.)
Change.org has a petition for clemency from Panetti’s sister and readers can and perhaps should write directly Governor Rick Perry (PO Box 12428, Austin, Texas 78711-2428) and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles (Clemency Section, General Counsel’s Office, 8610 Shoal Creek Boulevard, Austin, TX 78758).
Catholic teaching, of course, firmly rules out the death penalty in all but the rarest circumstances and obviously rules it out in Scott Panetti’s. See The Catechism of the Catholic Church (number 2267):
Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm — without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself — the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” [The quote is taken from St. John Paul II’s Evangelium vitae.]
It doesn’t say anything about the conditions for clemency, since it opposes the death penalty outright. It does explicitly note that the traditional teaching requires the “guilty party’s . . . responsibility,” which assumes that he knows what he’s doing and did it anyway, which is at the least extremely questionable in the case of someone bedeviled by paranoid schizophrenia.
Something of what “responsibility” means might be gleaned from the Catechism‘s teaching on suicide (numbers 2280-2283), in which the Church says that “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.” If grave psychological disturbance, like the paranoid schizophrenia from which Panetti suffers, partly reduces a man’s responsibility for killing himself, it partly reduces his responsibility for killing others.
As Catholics, we know we have to leave up to God the final determination of a man’s real guilt. We can’t possibly know. We do know the state of Texas should not kill him.