Executing the mentally ill
Texas Tribune managing editor Brandi Grissom has a stunning piece in the March issue of Texas Monthly, highlighting the case of convicted murderer Andre Thomas and posing this uncomfortable, big-picture question: What should the system do with the deeply mentally ill who commit horrific crimes?
Grissom follows in excruciating detail how the state’s mental health care system failed Thomas in the years before he brutally murdered his ex-wife Laura Boren, her 1-year-old daughter Leyha, and his 4-year-old son Andre Jr. in 2004. Thomas stabbed each to death before cutting out their hearts, telling authorities, “I thought it was what God wanted me to do.” For years, Thomas has been too mentally ill to be housed on death row. He’s attempted suicide multiple times. He’s pulled out both of his eyes, eating one.
Grissom also traces how Thomas bounced from crisis to crisis during his years-long battle with mental illness, never getting the treatment he needed. Texas routinely ranks last in the amount it spends on mental health care per capita, and fewer than one third of Texas children with severe emotional disturbances get treatment. The state’s penitentiary system is flooded with mentally ill offenders. Three units designed to house severely mentally disturbed inmates are always at or near capacity, and if Texas were to build a fourth, Grissom reports, it would be full as soon as it opened.
In a landmark 2007 case, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the execution of Scott Panetti, a delusional Fredericksburg man who gunned down his wife’s parents in 1992. Prior to the killings, Panetti had been hospitalized multiple times for schizophrenia, manic depression, paranoid delusions, and auditory hallucinations. After a Texas court ruled Panetti competent, he represented himself at trial wearing purple western shirts and cowboy boots. He put Jesus Christ on his witness list, and claimed his body had been taken over by an alter ego named “Sarge Ironhorse.”
The Supremes stalled Panetti’s execution saying inmates must not only be aware of their pending deaths, but must have a “rational understanding” of the punishment. The high court left it up to the states to determine what exactly that means, and Texas has interpreted the ruling rather broadly.
The Panetti ruling, for instance, did not stop last year’s execution of Jonathan Green, who was convicted in 2000 of abducting, raping, and strangling a 12-year-old Montgomery County girl. Green’s attorneys argued he suffered hallucinations about an “ongoing spiritual warfare between two sets of voices representing good and evil.”
It’s also unclear if the Panetti ruling would have kept Texas from executing other past mentally ill prisoners on death row.
Monty Delk, an Anderson County man, killed Gene Allen in 1986 when the two took Allen’s car out for a test drive. On appeal, Delk’s attorneys argued he suffered from “long periods of psychotic thought punctuated by grandiose delusions, incoherent ramblings and smearing himself with his own feces, interspersed with brief moments of lucidity and compliance.”
Strapped to the Texas death chamber gurney in 2002, Delk’s last words were a strange, obscenity-laced rant: “I am the warden. Get your warden off this gurney and shut up. You are not in America. This is the island of Barbados. People will see you doing this.”
Delk stopped mid sentence as the deadly drug cocktail took effect.
James Colburn, who suffered from schizophrenia since the age of 14, heard voices in his head, complained of a man living inside his stomach, and had attempted suicide over a dozen times when he was executed in 2002 for the 1994 killing Peggy Murphey in Montgomery County. Colburn told lawyers he believed execution was God’s way of punishing him.
In 2004 Gov. Rick Perry ignored a recommendation from the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, which voted to spare the life of Kelsey Patterson, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. After Patterson shot and killed two people in Palestine in 1992, he returned home, laid down his gun, stripped naked except for his socks, and wandered up and down the street.
At trial, Patterson refused to recognize his lawyers, convinced they were trying to kill him. He claimed someone had planted devices inside of him, and that he was being programmed by remote control. On death row, he refused to eat, saying a plate of beans was talking to him.
When asked for a final statement in the execution chamber, Patterson replied:
“Statement to what? State What? … Steal me and my family’s money. My truth will always be my truth. There is no kin and no friend; no fear what you do to me. No kin to you undertaker. Murderer. ( The state omitted a portion of the statement from its records due to profanity) … Get my money. Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my life back.” – Michael Barajas