Death row: UN experts urge US authorities to stop execution of Scott Panetti, a mentally ill prisoner

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GENEVA (2 December 2014) – Two United Nations human rights experts on arbitrary executions and on torture today urged the United States Government and the authorities of the State of Texas to halt the execution of Scott Panetti, a prisoner with proven psychosocial disabilities, due to be carried out on Wednesday 3 December.

“It is a violation of death penalty safeguards to impose capital punishment on individuals suffering from psychosocial disabilities,” the UN Special Rapporteurs on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, warned. “Implementing the death penalty under these conditions may amount to an arbitrary execution.”

“International law considers the imposition and enforcement of the death penalty on persons with mental disabilities a violation of the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment,” the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez, added.

Mr. Panetti was reportedly hospitalized between 1981 and 1992 for several mental illnesses, including chronic undifferentiated schizophrenia, depression, brain dysfunction, delusions, auditory hallucinations, and homicidal ideation towards his family. In September 1995, he was sentenced to death for killing his parents-in-law in Gillespie County, Texas, on 8 September 1992.

“I am seriously concerned that Scott Panetti’s capital trial, held in 1995 after an authorization to waive his right to counsel and to represent himself, despite his severe mental health condition, may have influenced the subsequent decisions of the courts,” Heyns said.

For two decades, Mr. Panetti has appealed the courts’ decisions on his competence to be executed, based on various expert assessments of his serious mental health conditions. However, his death sentence was upheld despite claims that he had psychosocial disabilities, and the existence of a federal ban on such executions.

“The death penalty may only be imposed when the guilt of the person charged is based upon clear and convincing evidence, leaving no room for an alternative explanation of the facts, as required by the ‘Safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty,’” Special Rapporteur Heyns recalled.

“There is no doubt that it is inherently cruel and unworthy of civilized societies to execute persons with mental disabilities,” added Mr. Méndez.

“Given the irreversible nature of the death penalty, we urgently appeal to the Government of the United States and the state of Texas to find a way to stop the scheduled execution, and we hope that serious consideration will be given to commuting the sentence,” the UN Special Rapporteurs said.