The Slatest

Behind the Christian Conservative Push To Save Scott Panetti

A death penalty protest in 2004.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Scott Panetti is a mentally ill prisoner on death row in Texas who was supposed to be executed on Tuesday night. But after massive public outcry opposing his killing, the fifth circuit court of appeals stayed his execution.

A surprising group of conservative political movers was part of that outcry. Richard Viguerie, the godfather of direct mail whose website features a petition calling for Obama’s impeachment, was key in rallying social conservatives for Panetti. Pat Nolan, director of the American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform, said he only followed Panetti’s case in passing until Viguerie called him up about it.


“I’ve been reading some things but haven’t really focused on it,” Nolan told Viguerie.

“He said, ‘Well, please do,’” Nolan recalls.

The two of them penned a Washington Times op-ed along with conservative Media Research Center head Brent Bozell opposing his execution.


“The authority to take a man’s life is the most draconian penalty that we allow our government to exercise,” they wrote. “As conservatives, we must be on guard that such an extraordinary government sanction not be used against a person who is mentally incapable of rational thought.”

They also sent a letter to Texas Gov. Rick Perry, signed by about two-dozen other conservative leaders, asking him to commute Panetti’s sentence.

“It would be immoral for the government to take this man’s life,” they wrote.


The letter’s signers include author Maggie Gallagher, a prominent opponent of same-sex marriage; David Keene, former president of the NRA; Ken Cuccinelli; Leadership Institute president Morton Blackwell; and former Republican presidential challenger Gary Bauer.

Bozell––speaking for himself and not for his organization––said he opposes the death penalty because he’s not convinced it deters crime. He added that his opposition to the death penalty has more to do with his Roman Catholicism than his conservatism.

“I have a strong affection for life, and the protection of life at both ends of the spectrum,” he said.

Nolan also cited his faith when explaining his opposition to Panetti’s execution.


“As Christians, we believe that every single human being has worth, that we’re created by God in love,” he said.


This might not sound like standard operating procedure for right-wingers, but it actually isn’t that unusual. There’s long been a strong contingent of right-leaning individuals and groups focusing on criminal justice reform, and that group includes Nolan, Keene, and Viguerie, as well as Americans for Tax Reform president Grover Norquist and representatives from the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation.* They started meeting regularly after the 2004 elections, as I reported earlier this year forNational Review, and they focus on mandatory minimum drug sentencing reform and other issues regarding incarceration.

The conservative push-back against Panetti’s execution wasn’t an official move that group made. But because influential social conservatives who focus on criminal justice reform know each other and communicate regularly about those issues, it wasn’t hard for them to organize their efforts for Panetti.

“I really think it’s an answer to prayer that the 5th circuit has put a stay on the execution,” said Nolan. 

Correction, Nov. 9, 2014: This post originally described the groups involved in prison reform as “social conservatives.” Given the role of the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, the more apt umbrella description is “right-leaning individuals and groups.”