Blind Justice

The state of Texas is seeking to execute Andre Thomas, a Texas death row inmate who hears voices, has gouged out both his eyes, first one and then some years later the other -- which he ate. Mr. Thomas is currently awaiting a ruling that will pave the way for him to be executed. His story has been featured in Mother Jones magazine as well as the Texas Monthly.

The crimes he committed were horrific; Andre Thomas killed his former wife, their son and her other child (by a different father). He carved out the children's hearts and tried to do the same to his former wife, but got a lung by mistake. Then he stabbed himself severely in the chest, but somehow didn't die. Thomas then took the organs, placed them in his pockets and turned himself in and told the police what he had done. He had done this, Thomas said, because he had to get the devils out of these people and set them free.

You see, Andre Thomas had been hearing voices since he was a nine or ten year old child and by the time he was a teenager he had begun to seek professional help -- and he did so many times. The doctors, psychologists and counselors who did see him all recognized the extreme nature of his mental illness.

This matters because the United States Supreme Court in a case called Ford v. Wainwright that the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment prohibited the execution of the insane. "We may seriously question the retributive value of executing a person who has no comprehension of why he has been singled out and stripped of his fundamental right to life," wrote Justice Thurgood Marshall in his majority opinion. Nonetheless, the court left it up to the states to determine who was too mentally ill to be put to death. And as we know, the devil is in the details.

Mr. Thomas's case shouldn't even be considered a close one legally -- he simply is too mentally ill to execute. In fact, Mr. Thomas has been found by the department of corrections too mentally ill to be on death row -- so he is housed in a mental health facility where medication appears to be of some help. He is too ill for death row, but not to be killed by the State of Texas? If this case does not fall into the category of someone who should not be executed under our law, it is hard to imagine who would fit in that category. The state of Texas should abandon its pursuit of death in this case, and continue to confine Mr. Thomas in a locked mental health facility.

This case illustrates is something even more troubling; our failure to have any real strategy for dealing with mental illness. Tragically, just weeks before the murders for which he was sentenced to death, mental health professionals issued detention orders, fearing what Andre Thomas would do to himself, or others. Twice the police failed to carry out those orders including one that had been issued just days before these voices commanded him to commit these acts.

I wish I could tell you that this is the only time something like this has happened, but it isn't. When I was in the public defender's office I represented a man whom I will call Isaac Jones. Mr. Jones had served in the army in Korea and while there had been shot in the head. He had survived but had deteriorated mentally over the years, seeing hallucinations, thinking he wasn't human and talking to people no one else could hear. Isaac had been hospitalized by the Veteran's Administration over fifty times, but each time they would get him calmed down on medication they would release him, even when he would ask them not to. His parents, neither of whom had graduated grammar school, had somehow found their way to mental health court, had persuaded a judge to issue a warrant for him so he could be examined and perhaps civilly committed. The police didn't arrest him, and so three weeks later he was walking down the street and stabbed a stranger to death whom he believed to be an alligator. He was ultimately found to have been insane and committed.

I tell you this story because I want it to be clear that these mental health problems are not unique to Texas. We all have to come to grips with the fact we usually don't respond until it's too late. In the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, many are wondering where our mental health system has gone awry. The state of Texas's desire to kill Andre Thomas shows that we are a long way from where we need to be. The old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is right; let's give the help to those who need it and save lives - including the mentally ill -- in the process. And we certainly should not allow the execution of Andre Thomas to proceed.