There's major concern growing that Texas Governor Rick Perry plans to move forward with executing Scott Panetti, a man with a long history of severe mental illness. It's undeniable that Panetti suffers from schizophrenia and that his mental illness is a significant disability. There is no doubt that his severe brain disease was a contributing factor to his ending up on Texas' death row.
However, I don't think we should ask Governor Perry to halt the execution Wednesday night. That's not asking for enough.
The problem is not that Texas plans to execute a man with a long history of severe mental illness. The problem is that the United States criminalizes people with mental illness instead of providing them with resources for mental health treatment and recovery.
People with organic brain diseases should not be sentenced to death where the clear goal is not rehabilitation, but extermination. The fact that death row often resembles an acute-care psychiatric unit means that we've lost our moral grounding and have failed both justice and public mental healthcare in America.
Twelve years ago I watched as my mentally ill cousin was executed by the state of Missouri. The execution itself was a medical procedure because lethal injection requires a nurse's care. In the hour prior to the execution as my cousin sat in the metal cage that was his holding cell, I overheard the nurse gently ask him if he wanted "something to calm his nerves."
I bet Scott Panetti will get his psych meds, too, right before Texas kills him. After all, nobody wants to see a crazy man have a psychotic episode triggered by the executioner's clock ticking down the last few minutes of his life. Such torture would be inhumane and barbaric.
Let's not lose sight of the real problem: people with severe mental illness and criminal behavior need treatment and recovery from organic brain diseases, not punitive institutionalization and execution.