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Texas Death Penalty Case Pits Rick Perry Against His Evangelical Supporters

Perry's role in the case of Scott Panetti, a Texas murderer diagnosed with schizophrenia who was granted a last-minute stay of execution Wednesday, has divided the governor's base.

by Colleen Curry
Dec 4 2014, 1:30am

Photo via Flickr/Ed Schipul

A stay in the execution of Scott Panetti, a Texas murderer diagnosed with schizophrenia, has helped take the pressure off Governor Rick Perry in what has become a hot button issue that pits Perry's conservative, evangelical base against him.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals granted a last-minute reprieve this afternoon to Panetti after his attorneys filed a motion arguing that his mental health should be reevaluated.

Panetti was arrested for killing his wife's parents in 1992, and, despite more than a decade of periodic hospitalizations for schizophrenia prior to the murders, he was deemed fit to stand trial. Panetti represented himself, wore costumes at the trial, called Jesus to the stand as a witness, and cross-examined himself using different personalities.

He was convicted and sentenced to death.

In a letter to Perry last month, a group of high-profile conservatives asked the governor to commute Panetti's sentence to life in prison, arguing that that the execution would "undermine the public's faith in a fair and moral justice system." The letter's signees included former Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli, Washington Times journalists, and members of several influential conservative think tanks.

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Many Texas evangelical leaders, along with former Texas Congressman Ron Paul, have also spoken out against Panetti's death sentence, but, until the court's ruling this afternoon, the execution was still scheduled for Wednesday night. Perry repeatedly ignored pleas for him to intervene.

Marc Hyden, coordinator of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, explained that conservatives, who have historically supported the death penalty, are beginning to change their minds, especially in cases where there are gray areas.

"When you look at his case, there's a lot of elements that give conservatives and evangelicals pause," Hyden said. "[Panetti] is a person with a severe track record of mental illness… A lot of conservatives and evangelicals who are worried about his case don't think it's right — think it's a travesty of justice.

'As we learn more and educate people on how broken the system really is, we see conservatives realizing its antithetical to their core principles.'

"Things are changing and they're changing really quickly," Hyden continued. "As we learn more and educate people on how broken the system really is, we see conservatives realizing its antithetical to their core principles: it risks killing someone who's not guilty, it costs more than life without parole, it gives the government power to kill you, and it fails to deter people."

Death penalty experts and people versed in Texas politics echoed Hyden's claim that support for the death penalty is on the wane, even in Texas, which performs more executions than any other state. Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University, noted that 70 percent of Texans support the death penalty, but the issue of DNA exoneration has begun to shake people's convictions.

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"This is a case that represents the change on perspective of mental illness in this country," said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, DC.

"People around the country, from evangelical leaders to law enforcement to international representatives and legal scholars are all saying this case is out of the norm and that it would be extreme to execute someone like Scott Panetti," Dieter said.

Still, Perry refused to bow to pressure from other politicians and leaders of his core evangelical base. Mark Jones, a fellow in political science at Rice University who studies Texas politics, explained that it was very typical behavior for Perry.

"Perry's always been a strong supporter of the death penalty and has also always expressed a great deal of faith in the process here in Texas, so he's unlikely to change the course of the proper process due to outside pressure," Jones said. "More than anything else Perry was just being consistent with his past actions and broader support for death penalty and confidence in the judicial process in Texas."

Hyden said that Perry's inaction on the Panetti case might cause conservatives to ask themselves tough questions about supporting Perry if he runs for president in 2016.

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"I'm sure this will come up," Hyden said. "If he plans on running for president again, conservatives will have to come together and ask ourselves if we can support someone who has potentially signed the death warrant for someone so mentally ill."

But Perry may ultimately avoid scrutiny for his role in the Panetti affair. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the execution pending further review, and it could take them until January or February to decide whether to allow the execution, or grant an even longer stay pending a mental health evaluation, Jones said. Jones also pointed out that the court is very conservative, meaning the judges could lift the stay based on their tendency to defer to the state.

Other experts told VICE News that the case could hurt Perry's chances with the general electorate if he decides to run for president, but likely would not affect his relationship with his evangelical base. Jillson said evangelicals have historically supported Perry even though he rarely pursues policies that support their social causes.

"He has never served their policy interests as directly as they wished he would," Jillson said. "He's not a Mike Huckabee, for example, or even a Rick Santorum. He speaks to those issues but he is focused more on economy and job creation."

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Follow Colleen Curry on Twitter: @currycolleen

Photo via Flickr