Texas House Would Like To Stop Executing The Severely Mentally Ill. Yes, Texas.
Content note: Severely disturbing eyeball-related imagery.
If there is anything (the government of) Texas loves even more than taking away people's reproductive rights, it is executing people. If it were up to some Texas Republicans, they'd probably just have a full-on Shirley Jackson's The Lottery situation happening every other week, just for the heck of it.
However! The Texas House has just moved (again!) towards making it illegal to execute people with severe mental illnesses, like schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder that inhibit a person's ability to fully understand what it is they did, why it is wrong, and what is even happening to them. (It is already supposed to be the law that people who are severely mentally disabled, those who might have the mind of a child, are ineligible for capital punishment, though of course that's not always the case in practice.)
Rep. Toni Rose (D-Dallas) has been proposing versions of this bill, HB 727, since 2017, and this is the third time the House has passed it. It has been voted down by the Senate twice, but Rep. Rose feels like the "third time's the charm." Rose explained on the floor that the severely mentally ill “would still be punished, they would just not be sentenced to death.”
To be clear, we're not talking about people who are depressed or anxious. We are talking about people who, in a rational world, would have been sent to a high-security psychiatric hospital instead of a prison. It doesn't really make a whole lot of sense to punish people who are not fully capable of understanding that they are being punished. It doesn't make much sense to kill them, either. Even if one sincerely believes that executing people really does a bang-up job of deterring people with no serious psychiatric issues from killing people (which it doesn't), it is hard to imagine that it would have any kind of effect on someone suffering from a delusional disorder. Like someone is going to think, "Oh gee, God, I'd love to obey your command to kill and eat my entire family, but the last guy who did that got executed so I'm gonna pass"?
This comes on the heels of the state's high profile attempts to execute a number of prisoners suffering from schizophrenia.
Via Texas Tribune:
In October, attorneys for the state of Texas admitted that Scott Panetti is severely mentally ill, but still attempted to persuade a federal judge that he is sane enough to be executed. In his infamous 1995 murder trial, Panetti, repeatedly diagnosed as schizophrenic, represented himself, calling to the stand witnesses like Jesus Christ and John F. Kennedy. He questioned himself on the stand as “Sarge,” using a distorted voice when speaking as the spirit inside him he claimed was responsible for the murders of his in-laws.
Before going to prison, Panetti had been hospitalized 14 times for psychotic behavior and was found to be severely disabled, according to court records. The federal judge has not yet ruled whether Panetti can get a new execution date.
And yet no one said, "Hey, maybe this guy is not guilty by reason of insanity?"
The state has also postponed the execution of Andre Thomas to give his attorneys more time to prove he is not competent enough to be executed. In 2004, at what he says was the behest of God, Thomas — who had experienced hallucinations since childhood — killed his estranged wife and two children.
The Texas Tribune reports that "[i]n jail awaiting trial, Thomas gouged out his right eye. In prison, he gouged out his remaining eye and ate it."
While the bill would not affect these two men or anyone else with a severe mental illness who has already been sentenced, it would affect people being newly sentenced. It would set up a process whereby those being tried for capital crimes in the state, such as murders involving children or police officers, could be assessed for severe mental illness. If there is enough evidence showing that someone does have such an issue — for instance, if they eat their own eyeball — then that evidence would be presented to the jury. The jury would then decide if they were too mentally ill to be sentenced to capital punishment, and they would instead be automatically sentenced (if found guilty) to life without parole.
I admit, I cannot quite wrap my head around the idea of "punishing" people who are so unwell that they are eating their own eyeballs or of even putting them in regular prisons with regular, non-eyeball-eating prisoners to begin with. I'm not sure how it is that a jury could watch a person who thinks they are putting Jesus or JFK on the stand at trial and think, "Yes, it is fine and normal to sentence this man (and the demon he believes is living inside him) to death." This does not make sense to me. So perhaps it's just nonsensical enough to appeal to Texas Republicans.
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Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse