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Saturday, October 22, 2016

So what does “cruel and unusual” mean?

I once asked that of a law professor. The Eighth Amendment prohibits “cruel and unusual” punishment, but I figured there had to be some technical definition I, as a layperson, was missing. I mean, from where I sit, it’s pretty “cruel and unusual” to execute someone, but to judge from the 1,392 executions of the last 38 years, that isn’t the case.

Scott Panetti almost became number 1,393 last week, but within hours of his scheduled lethal injection, he was reprieved by a federal judge. The court said it needs more time to consider the issues his case raises.

In a rational place, it would not be news that Panetti was not killed. In a rational place, they would understand that state-sanctioned execution is a relic of frontier barbarism that leaves us all wet with the blood of the damned. In a rational place, they would say there’s something especially repugnant about applying that grisly sanction to the mentally ill, like Panetti.

But Panetti doesn’t live in a rational place. He lives in America. Worse, he lives in Texas.

They love their executions in Rick Perry’s kingdom. Since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, an advocacy group, that state has killed almost 520 people. That’s nearly five times more than the next bloodiest state, Oklahoma, with 111.

There is no question Panetti deserves punishment. In 1992, he shot his estranged wife’s parents to death as she and the couple’s daughter looked on. He held them both hostage before releasing them unharmed.

But there is also no question that Panetti, 56, suffers from severe mental illness. At his trial, in which he was somehow, bizarrely, allowed to represent himself, he wore a purple cowboy suit with a 10-gallon hat and summoned a personality he called “Sarge” to explain what happened on the fateful day. His witness list included 200 people. Among them: John F. Kennedy, the pope, Anne Bancroft and Jesus Christ.

The state contends that Panetti, who was off his meds at the time of the killing, is faking it. During a 2004 hearing, the county sheriff called him “the best actor there is.” In its most recent filings, Texas accuses him of “grossly exaggerating” his symptoms.

If it’s an act, it’s been going on a long time. His attorneys say Panetti was diagnosed with schizophrenia 14 years before the shootings and was hospitalized 13 times between 1978 and 1991. Now a court decides on his life or death.

It’s a pregnant decision in a country where, apparently, it isn’t “cruel and unusual” to preside, as Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton did, over the execution of a man so profoundly impaired that he saved the pie from his last meal to eat later. Or to let a man gasp and snort for almost two hours as a lethal injection very slowly killed him, as happened in Arizona. Or to set a man on fire, as has happened at least twice in Florida’s electric chair. Or to execute people for crimes committed when they were children. Or to send innocent people to death row. Or to choose whom to execute based on color of killer, color of victim, gender, geography and class.

So what, exactly, might be too cruel and unusual for us to allow? The professor could not answer. Which, of course, is an answer.

As flawed and broken as our system of death is, we continue to embrace the puritanical morality of eye for eye and blood for blood. Most of the western world has left this savagery behind, but we insist on it, leaving us isolated from our national peers, those nations whose values are most like ours, but looming large among the outlaw likes of Somalia and Iran.

Now we are debating whether to kill a man so addled he tried to subpoena Jesus. And that leads to a conclusion as painful as it is unavoidable:

What’s “cruel and unusual” is us.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, FL, 33132. Readers may contact him via email at [email protected]

Photo: Ken Piorkowski via Flickr

  • Dominick Vila

    We should emulate the European Union, and the rest of the civilized world, and ban the death penalty. Life sentences are probably a better deterrent, if the goal is to reduce crime rather than revenge, than putting criminals out of their misery.

    • Yeah, send killers to a country club, so they can rest up for when they get out after a few years. Not to mention the millions if costs to house and feed them. Some crimes are worthy of the death sentence.

      • Allan Richardson

        The only killers who get sent to a country club, if even that, are the ones who kill by selling defective products and putting pollution in the air and water. “Dumb” killers who commit the physical actions themselves are sent to hellholes, not country clubs, as anybody with a grain of sense knows. And when the sentence is life WITHOUT parole, the only way they are getting out alive is if new evidence shows their innocence. In that case, if they had already been executed, nothing can be done to correct the injustice.

  • lacycatpaw

    Beautifully put, Leonard!

  • FireBaron

    I like to draw a difference between the way I feel concerning this, compared to others.
    First – I think the Death Penalty is overused by prosecutions. Often they will dangle this in an attempt to get a plea so they don’t have to go to trial. Also, there are some prosecutors so busy trying to make names for themselves, they will go for the Death Penalty right at the beginning and never offer a plea.
    Second – when a case does go to trial, the verdict and penalty are often a reflection of how much money the accused can pay his or her lawyer. I have noted that rich, White people are less likely to end up with a death penalty (unless they are shown to be so damned morally corrupt the Jury has no choice but to convict and sentence that) than poor Blacks or Hispanics.
    Third – Review of Panetti’s case before the trial should have resulted in him being incarcerated in a mental institution without ever going to trial.

    So what needs to be looked at before anything else: Is the accused mentally competent to stand trial? If not, he needs to be committed to an institution for the remainder of his life.
    Is the murder the result of a crime of passion? Then the sentence should be life, but could have mitigating circumstances resulting in a lower sentence.
    Is the murder a result of cold calculation? Then about 15 feet of hemp rope should take care of someone so morally devoid that he thinks nothing of killing someone.

  • jmprint

    The right to kill doesn’t stand with the Lord Jesus Christ. Not everybody is equal in mental state. Most humans that don’t get to experience a family member or loved in this condition do not understand the illness and are quick to judge. Which is the reason that only Lord Jesus Christ has that right to judge. Perry has blood running down his sleeves and Cruz is his cheer leader.

  • jointerjohn

    There is no punishment more cruel than a life sentence without chance of parole. Send me to the next world if you dare, but don’t torture me to remain in this one devoid of hope, with no freedom, and no future.

  • latebloomingrandma

    How many Americans actually care about the 8th amendment, because it concerns “criminals” unless the criminal happens to be in their family. I would think that each of the Bill of Rights is important, but the 2nd amendment seems to suck up all the attention.

  • Whatmeworry

    And yet the author see’s no problem with the sanctioned killing of 1 million babies in this country every year. This guy DID something to justify his execution what did a baby ever do?

    • Daniel Max Ketter

      Sorry Mr Democrat, but aborting a fetus is not a crime, but is a RIGHT that ALL women have, no different that removing a cyst from my fat butt