UN rights experts call on US to commute death sentence of mentally ill prisoner

Photo: IRIN

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

“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,” the UN Special Rapporteurs on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns said, warning that execution of Mr. Panetti could violate his rights.

Mr. Panetti was reportedly hospitalized between 1981 and 1992 for several mental illnesses, including chronic undifferentiated schizophrenia, delusions, and homicidal tendencies towards his family. In September 1995, he was sentenced to death for killing his parents-in-law in 1992.

“It is a violation of death penalty safeguards to impose capital punishment on individuals suffering from psychosocial disabilities,” he said, adding that implementing the sentence “may amount to arbitrary execution.”

The UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, Juan E. Méndez, added his voice to the call.

“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,” he said.

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

Mr. Heyns also raised questions about the judicial process Mr. Panetti originally faced.

“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,” he said.

Since his conviction, Mr. Panetti has appealed the courts’ decisions on his competence to be executed, based on various expert assessments of his serious mental health conditions. Despite the claims of psychosocial disabilities and the existence of a federal ban on such executions, the death sentence was upheld.

“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.

Independent experts or special rapporteurs are appointed by the Geneva-based Council to examine and report back on a country situation or a specific human rights theme. The positions are honorary and the experts are not UN staff, nor are they paid for their work.


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