The Eugenics of the Death Penalty
Texas will probably execute a severally mentally ill man tonight.
Scott Panetti has a history of severe mental illness that first manifested when he was 20. In 1992, he shaved his head and murdered his ex-wife’s parents. He was amazingly allowed to represent himself at his murder trial. Pro-Se Defendants are usually known for interesting courtroom antics but Panetti’s trial techniques go beyond the usual. He attempted to subpoena John F. Kennedy, Jesus Christ, and 200 other people.
The Texas Board of Pardons voted 7-0 against clemency. It is just not the usual suspects who are arguing that Panetti deserves clemency because of his mental illness. There are a large number of conservative heavy weights who believe that executing Panetti’s execution would “only serve to undermine the public’s faith in a fair and moral justice system.”
At this point, I need to be cynical about whether Panetti’s execution or anything else could undermine the public’s faith “in a fair and moral justice system.” I wonder how many people actually know about the Panetti case or whether the story is just being followed by news junkies. I’ve mentioned this before but I think political and news junkies vastly overestimate how much time non-political types spend following the news, thinking about politics, and trying to develop a coherent ideology. How can the public be outraged or dispirited if they simply don’t know?
I also wonder if people really care about the fact that Panetti is seriously mentally ill. The United States has a problem with treating the mentally ill. We have a seemingly large number of mentally ill people and no desire to do anything about getting them treatment. San Francisco launched a series of lawsuits against neighbor states because their solution to mentally ill homeless people was a one-way bus ticket to San Francisco. A few years ago New York City had some instances where people would be pushed to their deaths on subway tracks. Subway Pushers tend to be homeless and mentally ill. If you live in San Francisco long enough, you generally know someone who was randomly attacked by a mentally ill person. I once got off a bus to have a mentally ill person run up behind me and scream very loudly in my ear on Market Street. I’m just lucky she didn’t decide to bite it off. A friend of a friend was the victim of a biting attack by a mentally ill person while doing laundry at a laundromat.
In an ideal world, we would recognize how important it is to spend money on mental health. We do not live in an ideal world and there would likely still be people who were victim of crimes because of mental illness but we should be able to determine that people like Panetti are too mentally ill to be given capital punishment.
Most States like Texas use a shockingly low standard to determine whether a person is mentally ill or not. They simply determine whether the defendant generally knows that murder or some other crime is wrong. If the defendant answers that they understand murder is wrong, he or she is deemed competent to stand trial. This is generally called the M’Naughten rule. There was a brief moment in the 20th century when some courts switched to the more liberal Durham rule. The Durham rule held that a defendant could not be held “criminally responsible if his unlawful act was the product of a mental disease or defect.” Durham was controversial when it came out and was eventually overturned in 1972.
I have to wonder what Texas or death penalty supporters gain from executing Scott Panetti. This is not a case that divides on easily partisan lines as noted above. I also have to wonder what we gain from following the very strict M’Naughten rule instead of the more liberal Durham rule. The only conclusion I can think of is that there is a barely hidden eugenics aspect to being strict when mentally ill people commit crimes. A section of the population thinks that it is a waste of resources to spend money treating and housing the severely and possibly incurably mentally ill. The best solution is to get rid of them quickly or to remove them from sight. Send the mentally ill to another state, send them to prison for life, send them to their deaths. It is people asking to be absolved of responsibility.
Image: Wikimedia Commons