When I was a kid, my cousin, Stevie, came to live with us in Memphis. My brothers and I were intrigued by our almost-adult cousin who never really came out of the back bedroom. We’d sneak along the hall and listen to him arguing with himself—long, angry, complicated tirades that made no sense. We first-hand saw his fear of electrical outlets, avoidance of the sun, refusal to bathe, and real consternation about his food and what might be in it. My parents tried what they could to help him; my aunt and uncle had not been successful. I heard “schizophrenia” float around the house but didn’t understand that his brain didn’t work like mine.
Then suddenly he was gone.
And even more suddenly we heard whispers he had killed someone who disturbed his sleep one night in a park in Nashville. And that the dead man was a policeman.
Our society has thousands of untreated mentally ill people; our criminal justice system is overloaded with even more. The legal system is not equipped to handle the burden. The capital system is not designed with a treatment goal, which is what all mentally ill people—including those who commit crimes—need so desperately.
Scott Panetti is yet another instance of a severely mentally ill man hopelessly embroiled in the criminal justice system. He has suffered from schizophrenia for decades; his terrible capital crimes illustrate it, his behavior during trial and in prison confirm it. Even a young child knows how crazy it is to dress as a cowboy and flip a coin to pick jurors while representing yourself in trial for your life.
Mental illness is not an excuse to behave badly—it can be an explanation for the behavior. Often we cannot see the depth and breadth of mental health issues like we can see physical impairments. But just like we wouldn’t ask a woman with a broken leg to run a footrace, we cannot expect normal brain behavior from someone with a damaged or otherwise dys-functioning brain.
I’m not sure how but Stevie’s parents, my father, and another aunt were able to testify at a hearing about his illness and his inability to understand and function in the “real” world, and the judge concluded he was too crazy to kill. Stevie avoided a death sentence in court. Instead, he was sent to a hospital for the criminally insane, where he was actually treated. He was an exception; he was lucky in that instance.
Years later, there was talk that he was cured and that he was coming home to us again. But the week my father was to go pick him up, we got word he had been found hanging from a sheet in his cell, an apparent suicide. Other prisoners my father had met over the years there confirmed the guards had something to do with it—that there was no way a Black man would “get away with” killing a white cop, no matter how crazy he was.
So Stevie was executed in the end.
Today, more than 20 years later, the state of Texas is poised to execute another mentally ill human being. If the state of Texas executes Scott Panetti next week, as a society we have abdicated our responsibility to one more of the most helpless among us.
My father used to tell a story of when he and my uncle Louis took Stevie and his brother Danny fishing in upstate New York, long before I was born. One time they were stopped by a park ranger who bent down to ask Stevie, “Now where are you all from, little boy?”
And Stevie answered, “Home,” and wondered why they all laughed.
Tell Texas Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles that they should stop the execution of mentally ill Scott Panetti.
Sign the Change.org petition created by Scott’s sister to join the 80,000+ people who say Texas should not execute a schizophrenic man.