WASHINGTON -- Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) declined on Wednesday to criticize the death sentence of a severely mentally ill man in Texas, distancing himself from some of his fellow conservatives who have been calling for Scott Panetti's sentence to be commuted to life in prison.
"I trust the criminal justice system to operate, to protect the rights of the accused and to administer justice to violent criminals," Cruz, an outspoken critic of government overreach, told The Huffington Post after delivering a foreign policy speech at the Newseum.
"I don't think it's appropriate for me, as an elected official who does not currently have a role in the criminal justice system, to be getting involved in the adjudication of any particular case," he said. "It's important that the law be followed."
Panetti, 56, is on death row for murdering his in-laws in 1992. He was scheduled to be executed Wednesday at 6 p.m. CST, but just hours before, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals stepped in and issued a stay on the execution "to allow us to fully consider the late arriving and complex legal questions at issue in this matter." The court said it will be setting a schedule for oral arguments soon.
Panetti has suffered from schizophrenia and other mental illnesses for over 30 years, and has been hospitalized more than a dozen times. His attorneys asked the circuit court and the U.S. Supreme Court to step in, arguing that executing him would be unconstitutional based on the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The attorneys also unsuccessfully pressed Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) to issue a 30-day delay to the execution in order for Panetti to receive a new mental health assessment.
The case has attracted support from mental health reform advocates and death penalty opponents, as well as from a number of well-known conservatives, including former Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
Cuccinelli was one of a group of 21 conservative leaders who recently wrote a letter to Perry, saying it would be immoral to move forward with the execution.
"The authority to take a man's life is the most draconian penalty that we allow our government to exercise," they wrote. "As conservatives, we must be on guard that such an extraordinary government sanction not be used against a person who is mentally incapable of rational thought."
Mark Hyden, national coordinator for Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, praised the circuit court's decision in a statement Wednesday.
"A wide array of conservative and faith leaders have spoken out in record numbers about this case," said Hyden. "We have made it abundantly clear that numerous conservatives and Evangelicals view executing those who are mentally ill as a violation of our values as Americans. Conservatives have demonstrated we are firmly part of what appears to be a national consensus against executing people who are mentally ill.”