There’s major concern by mental health advocates that Texas Governor Rick Perry plans to move forward with executing Scott Panetti, a man with severe and chronic 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. 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 we criminalize people with mental illness instead of getting them treatment and resources they need for recovery.
People with 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 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 I overheard the nurse ask my cousin if he wanted something to “calm his nerves.”
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