By Bob Allen
More than 50 evangelical Christian leaders from Texas and across the country wrote an open letter Nov. 12 seeking clemency for a mentally ill inmate scheduled to die by lethal injection Dec. 3 in Texas.
Faith leaders voiced “grave concern” in a letter to Gov. Rick Perry and the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole about the upcoming execution of Scott Panetti, 56, a mentally ill man convicted of murdering the parents of his second wife in 1992.
Panetti has a 30-year history of serious mental illness. At his death penalty trial, he represented himself dressed in a cowboy suit and tried to subpoena Jesus Christ, the pope and John F. Kennedy.
In 2007 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Panetti’s death sentence, finding he lacked sufficient understanding of why he was being put to death. Panetti said he believed he was being executed not for the killings but for preaching the gospel to other inmates on death row.
His case was sent back to lower courts, who agreed with prosecutors that Panetti was exaggerating his mental illness and reinstated his death sentence. After various appeals, the Supreme Court refused to reconsider the case in October.
The case has attracted international attention for issues related to how the judicial system treats the mentally ill.
“The gospel message compels us to speak for those without a voice and to care for the most vulnerable,” the faith leaders said. “For this reason, it is imperative that we treat those with mental illness in a fair and humane manner.”
The faith leaders said going through with Panetti’s execution “would be a cruel injustice that would serve no constructive purpose whatsoever.”
“When we inflict the harshest punishment on the severely mentally ill, whose culpability is greatly diminished by their debilitating conditions, we fail to respect their innate dignity as human beings,” the letter said. “We therefore respectfully encourage you to consider granting Scott Panetti’s clemency petition and commuting his death sentence to life in prison.”
Signers included Paula Dempsey, director of partnership relations for the Alliance of Baptists; Shane Claiborne of The Simple Way in Philadelphia and Mercer University ethicist and Baptist News Global columnist David Gushee.
Other names include Fisher Humphreys, a retired Baptist theologian who taught at Samford University; Robin Lunn of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists and Trey Lyon, a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship pastor in inner-city Atlanta.
Cody Sanders, an Alliance of Baptists pastor in Sacramento, Calif., and Ashlee Wiest-Laird, pastor of First Baptist Church in Jamaica Plains, Mass., signed the letter, along with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, associate minister of St. Johns Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, N.C.
Alan Bean, an ordained American Baptist minister who leads Friends of Justice in Arlington, Texas, and contributes to the Baptist News Global blog, signed the letter. So did Charles Foster Johnson, a longtime Baptist pastor who now serves as executive director of Pastors for Texas Children in Fort Worth, Texas.
Other names include Heather Mustain, associate pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, and Stephanie True, associate pastor of University Baptist Church in Austin, Texas.