My Mom Ate Burnt Toast

FROM MY FILES FRIDAY: On December 19th, one year ago, my mother, Jean Earley, died from cancer.  This is the eulogy that I gave at her funeral.

My Mother

There are four things that you need to know if you want to know about my mother, Jean Earley.  She loved her God, she loved her husband, she loved her children — and she ate burnt toast.

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Let’s start with God.

My father didn’t start his career as a preacher. He owned a mom and pop grocery store in Douglas, Arizona, but he felt unfulfilled. He believed that God was calling him so he sold the store and studied to become a minister. His first church was in Buffalo, a town in the Oklahoma panhandle.  My father soon fell into a pattern. He would move to a small Disciples of Christ church that was struggling to attract members and build up that congregation through his preaching and his financial expertise until it was on firm footing and thriving. And then he would feel compelled to find yet another troubled church to rescue.

My mother was his defacto co-minister. She used her artistic skills to do chalk drawings during his sermons on Sunday nights to illustrate his lectures. She taught Sunday school, sang in church choirs, organized ladies groups, helped at church dinners and truly lived her beliefs.

Here’s an example.

Many of you know that my mother was completely blind in one eye and had macular degeneration in the other. What you don’t know is that she was blinded when an incompetent eye doctor severed her optic nerve during a bungled cataract surgery in South Dakota. There was never any talk of suing him, no anger at him by my parents. My mother simply accepted her blindness as a challenge that God had given her. She didn’t understand it, but believed it would not have happened if God had not wanted her to experience and grow from her loss of sight.

Example two:

My sister, Alice, died at age 17 when the motor scooter that she was riding – my motor scooter — got struck by a car in an  intersection. I was fifteen.   In the town of 1,000 residents where we lived during the 1960s, it was the custom that families in mourning stayed behind a veiled curtain in our church during a funeral.  My parents, along with my brother and me, sat in the front row directly in front of my sister’s coffin and greeted people as they went by it. My parents wanted to show that they believed that death could not defeat Christians who believed in the resurrection of Christ.  While profoundly devastated by their loss, they believed my sister had gone to a better place. My mother was certain of it.

My mother died in our home and a few days before she passed, she told me that she was ready to go to heaven to be reunited with her parents, my sister and to finally be with Jesus, the Holy Spirit and God, which was part of her faith. 

I find it ironic that my sister’s death caused me to doubt the existence of a loving God. It made my mother’s faith stronger.  

Moving on. 

 My mother loved my father completely. She was working one summer as a waitress on the New Jersey shore when they met during a blind date. They fell instantly in love and that never changed during the next 70 years of their marriage. Through the good times and the hard times – and there were many – their love for each other never wavered.

When I first met Patti, my wife, she asked me to tell her about my mother.  I began telling stories and nearly everyone of them actually was about both of my parents. She asked me to tell her a story just about my mom and I realized that was nearly impossible. You see, my mother was a strong woman but she came from an era when a woman put aside her own wants and desires to serve her husband. Times have changed, thankfully.

As was her nature, my mother never showed any signs of regret or anger or bitterness when she was called upon to sacrifice her career as an artist and draftsman, or move away from her family because of my father and his chosen profession. She always put him first. I am not saying that is what women should do. As the father of two daughters, I feel strongly about the both of them being independent. But my mother willingly put aside her dreams to create new ones with my father. It was how she was.

You would think that after 70 years of marriage, a couple would run out of things to say to one another. Yet, after my parents moved to Fairfax to live with us, I would walk into the living room and find them sitting on the couch holding hands talking. I finally asked them one day: “What in the world do you two have to say to each other?”

And my mom was genuinely shocked by the question.

People joke that they married someone for life but not lunch. My mom married for life and breakfast, lunch and dinner, always with ice cream after dinner. They really were each other’s best friends, confidantes, and partners. 

Number three on my list. My mother loved her family.

My first memories of my mother are of her reading bedtime stories to me. I always felt safe when she was next to me in my bed reading me books. And read she did. She focused on Bible stories, of course, but also on fairy tales, stories about Irish and Scottish children, and The Wizard of Oz.

I doubt I would have become a writer had it not been for my mother’s love of books and reading.

When I decided to quit working at the Washington Post and strike out on my own as an author in 1986, my mother was nervous but she urged me to take the plunge . She had always wanted to be a professional artist and I think she loved the idea of me making a living through the arts. 

After visiting my family and me one winter, my mother and father were driving home to South Dakota where they had retired. My mom spotted a 1963 Cadillac convertible sitting outside a Minnesota junk yard and said: “If Pete is going to be an author, he should be driving a Cadillac.” They pulled into that lot and bought that 23-year old car. It was cold that winter in Minnesota and the car was missing its top. My father drove behind my mom in that topless Cadillac with a pair of wool pajamas tied to his head like a turban to keep his ears from freezing. He repaired that car, had it painted bright gold and gave it to me along with a six foot tall pencil that my mom had hand painted that said Pete Earley Author. The pencil hangs in my office. Both gifts reflected how much they loved their son.

After I published my first book, my mom came to me and said, “You’ve always loved magic and you liked the Wizard of Oz,” you should write a children’s book about a magician. I didn’t listen to her. I wanted to write about prisons and casinos. Besides, what do mother’s know? A few years later, a character called Harry Potter appeared and I realized too late how wise my mother had been.

 My mother had an adopted brother named George who died during the war and my mother was delighted when I married Patti, who was a widow, giving my mother four instant grandchildren.  But my mother, in her typical self effacing fashion, was afraid to say too much to others about how proud she was of my adopted children.  She thought that she was too old for them to really pay attention to her or get to know her, and she was afraid that my adopted children’s blood grandparents might think she was intruding on their turf especially since Patti’s first husband, Steve, was a wonderful man. In private, she always bragged about them and how she had gained a daughter in Patti, having lost her own.

Which brings me finally to my mom and burnt toast.

When my father began his ministry in Buffalo, we didn’t have much money. In fact, part of the pay was food brought by farmers to the parsonage. I remember one woman brought us Mason jars filled with vegetables that were so old, you couldn’t recognize what it was. “I didn’t think the pigs would eat it, but I thought the preacher might,” she said. 

Because we lived in a parsonage with ancient kitchen appliances some pieces of toast always got burnt.  No matter what my mother did – at least one came out black. My mother always took the most burned one. I always thought that she liked burnt bread but that wasn’t the case. It was because, if anyone in the family was going to have to eat burnt bread, it was going to be her.

That is how my mother lived her life. She always put someone else’s concerns first. She always took the burnt bread.

 

Best & Worst in Mental Illness During 2014

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THE BEST: TRUDY HARSH and The Brain Foundation

After her daughter, Laura, developed a brain tumor at age eight, Trudy Harsh became a fearless advocate for persons with brain disorders. Tired of bureaucratic ineptness, she decided to do something about Fairfax County’s deplorable lack of affordable housing. (Some persons with mental illnesses could wait up to 18 years for an apartment.)

Trudy used her professional skills in 2003 as a real estate agent to launch an all-volunteer group called “The Brain Foundation.” With $50,000 in seed money from local entrepreneur, Wilbur Dove, Trudy secured a $450,000 loan from the Virginia Housing Development Authority – enough to buy a four-bedroom townhouse. She arranged for Pathways Homes to provide residential services for the house’s four residents. Trudy named the facility “Laura’s House” in honor of her daughter who passed away in 2006 at age 38.

Just last week, The Brain Foundation, bought its 11th house –an amazing and inspiring accomplishment for Trudy and her dedicated volunteer board.

If you are searching for a worthwhile holiday donation, The Brain Foundation and Pathways are excellent choices.

THE WORST: FLORIDA’S DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS

A shower so scalding, it melted off one man’s skin; another man gassed to death in a small room, begging for his life; beatings and torture and threats — and after all of it, a cover-up.

The Miami Herald exposed a culture of abuse by the Florida Department of Corrections at its Dade Correctional Institution psychiatric unit outside Miami, beginning with the death of Darren Rainey, a 50 year-old inmate with severe mental illness. Rainey died while locked in a scalding shower for more than an hour as punishment after defecating in his cell. Yet, the Miami-Dade medical examiner has yet to complete an autopsy and no one has been charged.

Terrifying and outrageous!

THE BEST: THIS IS MY BRAVE

Jennifer Marshall and Anne Marie Ames raised more than $10,000 in 31 days to finance a professional quality stage show called This Is My Brave that featured persons with mental illnesses talking about their struggles and recoveries. After the first show sold out, they took an abbreviated version tailored toward helping teens to a local Virginia high school. Now they’ve launched plans to raise an addition $15,500 to fund new shows in Washington D.C., Boston, and Iowa City where they will recruit local residents to tell their stories. (If you’d like to contribute, they’d be appreciative!)

Like Trudy Harsh, Marshall and Ames are everyday heroes who have used their talents to fight stigma and help others. (Marshall also writes the popular My Bipolar Mom Life blog.)

 THE WORST: DISNEY/ABC  TELEVISION AND MODERN FAMILY  

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Anne Sweeney, President of Disney/ABC Television, has not had the common decency to respond publicly to complaints about an utterly tasteless episode of the hit show, Modern Family, that both stigmatized and marginalized individuals with mental illnesses.

More than 70,000 of you read and distributed the letter of complaint that I posted after the Halloween episode aired. Liza Long, who became a nationally known blogger when she wrote “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” joined me on her popular blog,  The Anarchist Soccer Mom,’ in criticizing the company,  as did Janine Francolini, founder of the Flawless Foundation, who penned a Huffington Post entry. The National Alliance on Mental Illness assured me that it had contacted Disney/ABC Television behind the scenes too.

Yet Ms. Sweeney and Disney/ABC have thumbed their noses at the complaints and put the offensive episode into syndication, which means it will continue to ridicule persons with mental illnesses for years to come.

The fact that Ms. Sweeney is the mother of a son with autism (a brain disorder) makes her lack of empathy even sadder.

Please add your best and worst on my Facebook page.

 

 

From My Files Friday: What Were the First Warning Signs of a Mental Illness?

144227-14575712-12-14  FROM MY FILES FRIDAY ;  On April 4, 2011, I wrote about warnings that might suggest someone you love is showing signs of an emerging mental disorder. Here’s a slightly edited version of “What Were the First Warning Signs.” Please share on my Facebook page helpful information from your own personal experiences that might help others. 

“Did you see any warning signs that should have tipped you off about your son’s mental illness?”

It’s a question I am asked whenever I speak in public.

Like other parents, I have spent hours thinking about my son’s past,  wondering if there were behaviors that I missed which should have been red flags.  If so, what were they? When did his mental illness first begin revealing itself?

My son always marched to the beat of a different drummer as a youngster. As a parent, I was proud of many of the quirks that made him unique. He was different in a good way.  But after his illness surfaced, I wondered if some of these differences had been warning signs.

One reason why it can be difficult to recognize symptoms of an emerging  mental illness is because many of them surface when an individual is in his/her early 20s. Often, this is when young people are becoming more independent. Is excess alcohol consumption a warning sign or simply what young men and women do when they attend a college, join the military or move out on their own?

This is also an age when individuals often feel under tremendous stress, which can trigger a break.

So what sort of signs should a parent watch for if they believe their son/daughter may be exhibiting behavior that suggests an emerging mental disorder?

My son was attending the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn when I first realized something was amiss. We talked each Sunday afternoon on the telephone and he told me that he was having difficult eating. Food had lost its flavor. Even worse, many of the dishes  that he’d once enjoyed now made him physically ill.

Because my son always had been a picky-eater, I was not immediately alarmed. (I also remembered that meals at my college weren’t the greatest!) But a week after our first conversation about food, my son stopped eating because he’d been vomiting all week. He also told me that he was having difficulty recognizing when he was dreaming and awake.  I immediately drove to New York to check on him.

When I saw the condition of his dorm room, I became alarmed. It was a mess. Clothing, papers, books – everything that he owned appeared to be dumped on the floor.  I found little yellow notes scattered everywhere.  Few of them made sense to me. When I asked, my son downplayed their significance, claiming they were bits-and-pieces of  lyrics that he was composing for a rap song.

At the urging of my wife, Patti, I decided to call a psychiatrist, who my son willingly went to see him. I will never forget what that psychiatrist said. “If you are lucky, your son is using illegal drugs. If you are not, he has a mental illness.”

I couldn’t imagine anything worse than my son using drugs. I was naive about the devastating impact that a mental illness can cause. The doctor prescribed a mood stabilizer and anti-psychotic and my son took them. He immediately got better so I believed the problem had been solved and all of us could simply go on with our lives.

I was wrong.

My son was busy with classes, didn’t like how he felt on medication, and soon had stopped taking his pills. If you’ve read my book, then you know what happened next.  My son ended up being psychotic and when I took him to an emergency room, we were turned away because he was not considered dangerous enough to be treated. He ended up breaking into an unoccupied house to take a bubble bath and was arrested.

So what do I tell parents who ask me about early warning signs?

Three things.

First, don’t be ignorant like I was. Be aware of the symptoms of emerging mental illnesses. We need to do a better job educating doctors, teachers, and parents about those signals. Common ones include insomnia, extreme changes in energy levels and appetite, periods of distinctly depressed or elated moods that persist for longer than several days at a time, withdrawal from normal activities and friends, hearing voices and irrational beliefs and fixations.

Second, know your own family’s medical history. Mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, are thought to have a genetic component. It’s important to learn if there is a history of mental illness in your family. Because of shame and stigma, my family’s history was hidden. No one talked about a cousin who was discharged from the military after he became withdrawn and paranoid, nor the uncle who was an alcoholic and considered suicide. You would not hide the fact that your family has a history of heart problems. But people hide mental illnesses. Being open and honest about mental illnesses in one’s own family also sends a message that it’s okay to seek help.

Third, make certain you see a good psychiatrist who is going to take sufficient time to investigate what really is happening. The brain is complex and determining why a person is exhibiting troubling signs can be tricky. There could be other reasons, besides a mental illness, that might be causing a sudden change in personality. Make certain that a doctor checks every possibility before issuing a mental health diagnosis. And then make certain that a psychiatrist has sufficient information to correctly diagnose what form of mental disorder is emerging. Different doctors have diagnosed my son with: bipolar disorder, early onset schizophrenia and schizo-affective disorder. That’s why it is often helpful to get more than one opinion — if you are lucky enough to see a psychiatrist before a crisis.

Perhaps the best advice that I’ve heard was offered during a recent Diane Rehm  show on NPR that I participated in after the tragic shootings in Tucson. Kenneth Duckworth, the  medical director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness,  was asked by a listener about warning signs in adolescents.

Dr. Duckworth said that if a parent is waking up in the morning extremely anxious about their child’s erratic behavior, then that parent should consult with a psychiatrist. He explained that parents routinely check with doctors when they spot symptoms of a possible physical ailment. Why should concerns about a potential mental illness be treated differently?

Our “Black and White” Legal System: An Update On Two Troubling Cases

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I recently posted two blogs that raise troubling questions about what happens when people with mental disorders become entangled in our criminal justice system. Here are updates about Reginald Latson and Josh Francisco. 

IS RACE A FACTOR IN HOW VIRGINIA IS TREATING AUTISTIC BLACK MAN?

The Washington Post is continuing to publicize the troubling case of Reginald Latson, an African American young man with autism currently being held in solitary confinement in Stafford County, Virginia. One has to wonder if race had and is playing a role in this unfolding sad incident in light of recent national events that have shown a spotlight on how race can influence our system.

Latson first became entangled in the legal  system four and a half years ago when he was nineteen years old and was waiting outside a public library to return a book. An employee in a nearby school called the sheriff’s office to report that Latson looked suspicious. He was a black youth loitering while wearing a hoodie.

A deputy responded and demanded to know what Latson was doing. It is not uncommon for individuals with autism to react inappropriately in such instances. Latson refused to answer questions and tried to leave. At that point, there was an altercation during which the deputy was injured. Latson was convicted of felony assault of a law enforcement officer and a jury suggested ten years in prison. Ten years.

The Post now tells us that Stafford County Prosecutor Eric Olsen is pressing ahead to further punish Latson instead of releasing him to a facility in Florida that specializes in handling individuals who have mental disorders and have been convicted of crimes.

As The Post’s Ruth Marcus has detailed in two op-ed columns, the story of Mr. Latson, who spends 23 hours daily isolated in a Virginia prison cell with a hole in the floor for a toilet and no proper bed, is a case study of how ill-equipped the criminal justice system is to handle people with mental, developmental and emotional disabilities.

Specialists who have examined Mr. Latson describe him as a boy in a man’s body, given to violent impulses and outbursts. State officials concluded last year that he belongs in a secure therapeutic treatment center, not a prison. They arranged for just such a placement, at a facility in Florida, and a judge signed on to that plan.

But a prosecutor in Stafford County, Eric Olsen, has pressed ahead to keep Mr. Latson in prison rather than at an equally secure facility where he could receive appropriate treatment. Last spring he brought a fresh assault charge after Mr. Latson punched a prison guard — the sort of incident that is sometimes treated as a disciplinary matter in prison, not a new criminal offense.

 The effect has been to prolong a toxic cycle of incarceration, violent outbursts and criminal charges. All this for a young man whose problems would be better managed outside the prison system at a secure treatment facility.

No one is suggesting Mr. Latson should go free. But it seems clear that punishment — he has been segregated for long periods from other inmates, deprived of TV, radio, books and magazines and, at various times, Tasered (after punching the guard) and straight-jacketed into a chair — is doing no good. Since his arrest in 2010, Mr. Latson has cycled through 10 or so facilities in Virginia, including jails, prisons, group homes and psychiatric hospitals. He has had recurrent suicidal urges and has lost 40 pounds from an already-lean frame.

Yet as long as Mr. Latson faces pending charges, he cannot be transferred to the treatment facility in Florida.

Given Mr. Olsen’s insistence on further criminal charges, it appears that this senseless cycle can be broken at this point only by a guilty plea or conviction at a new trial for Mr. Latson, which is scheduled for next month. Once that happens, the judge could see that Mr. Latson is moved to the treatment facility after serving a mandatory minimum sentence in Virginia, or Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) could immediately grant a pardon conditioned on Mr. Latson’s transfer to the facility in Florida. It’s not too late for Virginia to get its act together and recognize the distinction between disability and criminality.

Based on the facts as reported by the Post, it would seem that Reginald Latson not only has his mental disorder working against him, but his skin color as well. The governor should end this spectacle.

THE DEATH OF JOSH FRANCISCO: The ‘What ifs’ that trouble his parents.

Anne Francisco’s heartbreaking letter about her son’s suicide that was first printed here was picked up by The St. Louis Post  and Huffington Post, and that additional publicity has lead to a series of disturbing admissions. You might recall that Josh Francisco committed suicide in his jail cell in Missouri after his probation on a stalking conviction was revoked and a judge reinstated his initial three year sentence.

Like so many cases that involve persons with mental illnesses, Josh first got into trouble four years ago after he became psychotic but refused to seek treatment. This led to his wife seeking a restraining order and eventually a divorce.  Prosecutors filed a new felony count against Josh and successfully revoked  his probation after he called his ex-wife from a mental facility. After his death, Anne received an email from a court official who was familiar with the case and upset about Josh’s suicide.

I asked the prosecuting attorney why Josh was in violation of his probation for making a call from a mental hospital.  Obviously there was something wrong or he wouldn’t be in a mental facility! I was told that because the judge did not sign the order declaring him incompetent until after the calls were made, he was viewed as sane at the time the calls were made. Josh is not “mentally ill” until the judge signs off on the psychiatric report that outlines why he is mentally ill.  

That email caused Anne to wonder if prosecutors would have pursued the matter if the judge had made his ruling earlier. It is one of the many “what ifs” that the deeply religious family has asked since Josh’s death. Anne told me that she also received an email that suggested Josh’s suicide could have been avoided if his Social Security Disability Insurance had not been terminated.

Josh’s probation officer had found supportive housing for Josh after he was released from the state hospital to the jail in March. But when the agency learned that Josh’s SSDI had lapsed while he was hospitalized they refused to take him.  And a person who is incarcerated can’t reapply for SS until he/she is released. That made re-entry into society impossible for Josh. He lingered seven more months in the state’s custody with no movement (he was never even housed in the mental health care unit of the hospital) until he lost all hope that fateful night. If Josh had been able to re-apply for SS before he was released from the state hospital, it could have been a game changer. A reminder of yet another roadblock folks encounter when trying to get help for themselves or loved ones.

 The family also was told by prison officials after Josh’s death that the correctional facility where he was being held in solitary confinement hadn’t had enough officers on duty to adequately watch him.

At Josh’s funeral, mourners released balloons in his memory.

In an email Anne wrote: “Josh could not will himself to be free of delusions or depression any more than a cancer patient can will his or her cancer to be gone. Our inability and powerlessness to intervene on Josh’s behalf while he was in custody of the state of Missouri continues to haunt us day and night. He became trapped in the black and white nature of the criminal justice system. My heart hurts for others in our shoes. We have faith that God was with Josh in his solitary confinement, speaking words of love and peace as he was taken home. Until we meet again.”

 

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Execution of Scott Panetti Halted — For Now

Thanks to everyone who voiced their concern about this case!

COURT HALTS EXECUTION OF MENTALLY ILL TEXAS INMATE

USA TODAY   1:32 P.M. WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 3RD, 2014

AUSTIN: A federal appeals court in New Orleans on Wednesday halted the execution of Texas killer Scott Panetti, whose case has sparked a global debate over whether people with severe mental illnesses should be put to death for their crimes.

Panetti’s lawyers say he is too delusional to be executed. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted a reprieve less than eight hours before Panetti was scheduled to receive a lethal injection. The court said it needed more time to “allow us to fully consider the late-arriving and complex legal questions at issue in this matter.”

The court said oral arguments would be scheduled in the case. The Texas Attorney General’s Office said it won’t fight the ruling and that the execution would not happen Wednesday.

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court halted Panetti’s execution and called for another review of his competency. Last year, the appeals court had determined that Panetti was sufficiently competent to be executed.

Paul Appelbaum, of the American Psychiatric Association, which has lobbied against Panetti’s execution, said he was “pleased and relieved” by the ruling.

“This has been a long saga,” he said. “We’re not at the end of the story yet.”… His behavior, best we can tell, was driven by his illness rather than a deliberate act of criminal intent.”

The Supreme Court in 1986 prohibited executions for those who are not aware of their impending execution and the reason for it.

Panetti dressed as a cowboy during his murder trial and, acting as his own lawyer, called John F. Kennedy, Jesus and the pope as witnesses. He’s been hospitalized more than a dozen times for psychosis and delusions.

Panetti, 56, was sentenced to die for the 1992 murder of his estranged wife’s parents. Despite appeals from the American Psychiatric Association, the European Union and others, Texas officials had planned on carrying out Panetti’s execution at 6 p.m. Wednesday.

“This is a man that has been severely and profoundly ill since 12 years before the crime,” Ron Honberg, legal director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said before the delay was announced. “It will be a travesty to proceed with this execution.”

There are no statistics showing how many people with mental illnesses have been executed over the years, though they routinely happen, said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, a Washington-based non-profit that’s critical of the death penalty. An estimated 10% to 15% of people on death row in the U.S. are believed to have some form of mental illness, he said.

Whether or not to execute defendants with severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, has been a growing topic of debate, Dieter said. A recent survey by Public Policy Polling showed 58% of those polled oppose the death penalty for persons with mental illness; 28% favor it.

 

Execution of Mentally Ill Inmate Set For Wednesday: Tried to Call Jesus As Witness

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The following editorial was first published on line Sunday morning by USA TODAY and appears in the newspaper’s print edition today, 12-2-2014.

DON’T EXECUTE THE PURPLE COWBOY

Texas Case Highlights The Perverse Legal Definition of ‘Mental  Competency.

By Pete Earley in USA TODAY

On Dec. 3, Texas plans to administer a lethal injection to Scott Panetti, a mentally ill inmate who attempted to call former president John F. Kennedy, the pope and Jesus Christ as witnesses while representing himself at his murder trial wearing a cowboy costume with a purple bandana.

Panetti’s 22-two year odyssey through our U.S. legal system for killing his in-laws should never have gotten this far and while his case is especially egregious, up to 10% of the 3,035 inmates currently awaiting execution are thought to have a diagnosable mental disorder, such a schizophrenia, and a June study found that of the last 100 people executed in the U.S., 54% had a mental illness.

The state had to hold two jury trials — not to prove him guilty — but to prove that he was sane enough to prosecute him. At his trial, Panetti announced God had cured him, fired his attorneys and called “Sarge” as a witness, questioning himself on the stand using different voices.

‘Cruel and unusual’

In 1986, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Ford v. Wainwright that executing the mentally ill violated the Eighth Amendment that prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. But the court never defined mental “competency.” Without that guidance, pro-death states adopted a low bar written by Justice Lewis Powell that allows an execution if mentally ill defendants are aware of “the punishment they are about to suffer and why they are to suffer it” — regardless of how psychotic they might be.

Panetti’s case eventually reached the Supreme Court but rather than clarifying its 1986 ruling, the justices ordered the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to determine if Panetti realized he was about to be executed and why.

That three-judge panel oversees the busy “death belt” states of Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi and has never found a mentally ill defendant who it thought should be spared. Based on Panetti’s medical records and expert testimony, a federal district judge in Texas already had ruled that Panetti wasn’t sane enough but the appellate court bent over backwards to prove he had a “rational understanding” of what was happening to him. They cited secret tape recordings by prison officials who overheard Panetti discussing his case with visiting family members, ignoring the fact that he was largely regurgitating details his attorneys had told him.

Before the murders happened, before Panetti became entangled in the court system, he was already a sick man who’d been hospitalized for “homicidal tendencies” yet always had been discharged. Today, he believes the Devil is about to kill him for preaching the Gospel, not Texas for the murders.

Sentence him to life

Panetti’s attorneys are not asking he be freed. They want Texas Gov. Rick Perry to commute his death sentence to life in prison — as does former Texas governor Mark White, who called Panetti’s trial a “sham”; former congressman Ron Paul, the American Bar Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 10 Texas state legislators, 33 former prosecutors and U.S. attorneys general and 55 evangelical leaders.

Panetti’s life also could be spared if the courts intervened. Based on Panetti’s lengthy history, he should have never been allowed to represent himself at trial and the 5th Circuit judges should not have allowed their fear of a possible malingerer avoiding execution to override their obligation to protect the truly insane.

For a penny in 16th century England, curiosity seekers were admitted into the Bedlam asylum to torment the insane by poking them with sticks. If neither Gov. Perry nor the courts stop this execution, it could be argued that the officials we have entrusted to ensure justice and mercy are the ones jabbing those sticks today.

An online petition calling on Governor Perry to intervene can be signed here.