The Abolitionist New  
Vol. 2, No. 12
December 2014
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Is The Prisoner Sane Enough To Be Executed?
The Rev. Mary Janet "Bean" Murray 

     The State of Texas did not execute Scott Panetti on December 3rd. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has temporarily stayed his execution "pending further order of the court to allow us to fully consider the late arriving and complex legal questions at issue in this matter." Perhaps during this period he will get his first psychiatric evaluation in seven years, which can help to determine if he is sane enough to be put to death for the 1992 murders of his estranged wife's parents. There is no question that he carried out the murders, but did he have the mental capacity to understand what he did and that it was wrong, is what is being contested.

     This case points out a number of absurdities about the continuation of the death penalty in the United States and the particularly absurd logic in Panetti's case. The very U. S. Supreme Court decision determining that it is unconstitutional to execute a person whose mental capacity is seriously impaired by mental illness bears his name--(Panetti v. Quarterman, 551 U.S. 930 (2007). Nevertheless, the state of Texas determined that Panetti was faking his illness and could be killed. At his trial, Panetti was allowed to dismiss his attorney and defend himself. He claimed his alter ego, named Sarge, was the murderer. His defense included many subpoenas to persons living and dead, including John F. Kennedy and Jesus Christ. If he were truly faking his illness to keep from being executed, he began to plot his defense many years before his crime. In the years before the murders, he was institutionalized fifteen times for schizophrenia.

     Wait a minute. Let's back up here. Did I say "sane enough to be executed?" This is Texas' big conundrum-proving the degree of his illness to qualify him for the death penalty. It seems as though making such a valid determination should be right up there with the age-old question of determining how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I'm prejudiced against the death penalty, of course, but an obvious solution to the problem of deciding if someone is sane enough to be kill by the state is to remove the possibility of execution-no death penalty, no necessity to rule on the finer points of a person's mental illness.

     My state of Arkansas has executed at least two persons with seriously diminished mental capacity. One man, when it was time to walk to the death chamber, told prison staff to leave the dessert from his last meal so he could eat it later. Another death row prisoner required antipsychotic drugs to enable him to be partially mentally clear enough to be considered sane enough to be killed. This makes no sense.

     The larger issue of woefully inadequate care for persons with mental illness is one of our nation's great unmet needs. The stigma of a mental illness is a major obstacle for all people with such a diagnosis, but people with mental health issues face extra harsh treatment in our criminal justice system. With sufficient resources to provide adequate treatment, crimes such as Panetti's might be prevented.

     Poor justice for persons with mental illness is one of many reasons why the United States should end the death penalty. Execution is not a deterrent for capital offenses. Taxpayer funds are not saved by executions, because the lengthy appeals require a huge expenditure of government funds. The large number of exonerations that have prevented innocent persons from being executed are reason enough to halt executions to prevent the state sanctioned killing of innocent men and women.

     Our Church teaches us that the death penalty is not just. We can get involved with efforts in our own states to help to end the death penalty. States are beginning to understand that the death penalty is a broken concept, and in lieu of U. S. Supreme Court action, we can work hard to abolish this barbaric practice in our country one state at a time.
The Rev. Mary Janet "Bean" Murray is a retired deacon in the Diocese of Arkansas. She is coordinator of the Episcopal Mental Illness Network and serves as the vice-president of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

 Conference Slated At Vanderbilt University On The Death Penalty


     A coalition of anti-death penalty advocates will converge on the campus of Nashville's historic Vanderbilt University next spring to strategize on the problems of mass incarceration and the death penalty.

     The conference, entitled "Re-Visioning Justice in America," will be held at the V.U. Divinity School on April 17-19.

     Among the confirmed speakers are Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy, Howard Zehr, author of Changing Lenses, and Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow. All of these addresses are open to the public.

     For full details and ongoing updates, "Like" the "Re-Visioning Justice in America" Facebook page.  

The Checkered History Of The Death Penalty In America


     CNN published a story that gives a thumbnail overview of the the history of the death penalty in America. The data in the article shows an inconsistent use of the death penalty throughout its checkered history in America. 

     The inconsistency of how the death penalty is used, along with its discriminatory application to the poor and minorities, is an integral part of this sordid history. Here are a few facts to use when discussing the death penalty.


1834- Pennsylvania becomes the first state to move executions into correctional facilities, ending public executions. 

1838 - Discretionary death penalty statutes are enacted in Tennessee.

1846 - Michigan becomes the 1st state to abolish the death penalty for all crimes except treason.

1890 - William Kemmler becomes the 1st person executed by electrocution.

1924 - The use of cyanide gas is introduced as an execution method.

1930's - Executions reach the highest levels in American history, averaging 167 per year.

June 29, 1972 - Furman v. Georgia. The Supreme Court effectively voids 40 death penalty statutes and suspends the death penalty.

1976 - Gregg v. Georgia. The death penalty is reinstated.

January 17, 1977 - A ten-year moratorium on executions ends with the execution of Gary Gilmore by firing squad in Utah.

1977 - Oklahoma becomes the 1st state to adopt lethal injection as a means of execution.

December 7, 1982 - Charles Brooks becomes the 1st person executed by lethal injection.

1984 - Velma Barfield of North Carolina becomes the 1st woman executed since reinstatement of the death penalty.

1986 - Ford v. Wainwright. Execution of insane persons is banned.

1987 - McCleskey v. Kemp. Racial disparities are not recognized as a constitutional violation of "equal protection of the law" unless intentional racial discrimination against the defendant can be shown.

1988 - Thompson v. Oklahoma. Executions of offenders age 15 and younger at the time of their crimes are declared unconstitutional.

1989 - Stanford v. Kentucky, and Wilkins v. Missouri. The Eighth Amendment does not prohibit the death penalty for crimes committed at age 16 or 17.

1996 - The last execution by hanging takes place in Delaware, with the death of Billy Bailey.

2002Atkins v. Virginia. The Supreme Court rules that the execution of mentally retarded defendants violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

December 2, 2005 - The execution of Kenneth Lee Boyd in North Carolina marks the 1,000th time the death penalty has been carried out since it was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976. 

June 12, 2006- The Supreme Court rules that death row inmates can challenge the use of lethal injection as a method of execution. 

December 15, 2006- Florida Governor Jeb Bush suspends the death penalty after the execution of prisoner Angel Diaz. Diaz had to be given 2 injections, and it took more than 30 minutes for him to die.

December 15, 2006- Judge Jeremy Fogel of the U.S. District Court in San Jose rules that lethal injection in California violates the constitutional prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

December 17, 2007- Governor Jon Corzine signs legislation banning the death penalty in New Jersey. The death sentences of 8 men are commuted to life terms.

April 14, 2008- In a 7-2 ruling, the Supreme Court upholds Kentucky's use of lethal injection.

March 18, 2009- Governor Bill Richardson of New Mexico signs legislation repealing the death penalty in his state. 

2010 - Execution by firing squad is used for the last time in Utah, with the death of Ronnie Lee Gardner.

March 9, 2011 - Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn announces that he has signed legislation eliminating the death penalty in his state, more than 10 years after the state halted executions.

July 2011 - Lundbeck Inc., the company that makes pentobarbital (brand name Nembutal), the drug used in lethal injections, announces it will restrict the use of its product from prisons carrying out capital punishment. "After much consideration, we have determined that a restricted distribution system is the most meaningful means through which we can restrict the misuse of Nembutal. While the company has never sold the product directly to prisons and therefore can't make guarantees, we are confident that our new distribution program will play a substantial role in restricting prisons' access to Nembutal for misuse as part of lethal injection." Lundbeck also states that it "adamantly opposes the distressing misuse of our product in capital punishment."

April 25, 2012 - Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy signs S.B. 280, An Act Revising the Penalty for Capital Felonies, into law. The law goes into effect immediately and replaces the death penalty with life without the possibility of parole. The law is not retroactive to those already on death row.

November 6, 2012 - A measure to repeal the death penalty in California fails.

May 2, 2013 - Maryland's governor signs a bill repealing the death penalty. The legislation goes into effect October 1.

June 26, 2013 - Texas executes its 500th prisoner since 1982, Kimberly McCarthy, for the 1997 murder of Dorothy Booth. McCarthy is the first female executed in the U.S. since 2010.

January 16, 2014 - Ohio executes inmate Dennis McGuire with a new combination of drugs, due to the unavailability of drugs such as pentobarbital. The state used a combination of the drugs midazolam, a sedative, and the painkiller hydromorphone, according to the state corrections department. According to witness Alan Johnson of the Columbus Dispatch, the whole execution process took 24 minutes, and McGuire appeared to be gasping for air for 10 to 13 minutes.

May 22, 2014 - Tennessee becomes the 1st state to make death by electric chair mandatory when lethal injection drugs are unavailable.

July 23, 2014 - Arizona uses a new combination of drugs for the lethal injection to execute convicted murderer Joseph Woods. After he was injected it took him nearly two hours to die. Witness accounts differ as to whether he was gasping for air or snoring as he died.

September 4, 2014 - The Oklahoma Department of Public Safety issues a report on the controversial April execution of inmate Clayton Lockett. Complications with the placement of an IV into Lockett played a significant role in problems with his execution, according to the report. An autopsy confirmed that Lockett died from the execution

     For more information, go to CNN.