A schizophrenic who gouged out his eyes is on Texas death row

Andre Thomas committed heinous acts but is deeply mentally ill -- something the Texas justice system cannot handle

Published February 25, 2013 6:21PM (EST)

 Andre Thomas, gouged out both his eyes, facing death       (Texas Department of Criminal Justice)
Andre Thomas, gouged out both his eyes, facing death (Texas Department of Criminal Justice)

In December 2008, Andre Thomas pulled out and ate his left eyeball. He had gouged out the right eye in 2004, having taken a bible passage literally, six days after he brutally murdered his estranged wife, their young son and her 13-month-old daughter. His attorney Maurie Levin, who is co-director of Texas' Capital Punishment Clinic, told Salon that her client is "transparently and floridly" mentally ill. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic while in prison, having heard voices in his head since childhood. What sort of system sentences Andre Thomas to death?

Texas Tribune managing editor Brandi Grissom has followed Thomas' case closely. As she noted in an excellent feature for theTexas Monthly, "as he awaits execution, Andre and his tragic case force uncomfortable questions about the intersection of mental illness and the criminal justice system." Thomas is certainly not the only death row inmate to have been diagnosed with mental illness; more than 20 percent of the 290 inmates on Texas' death row are considered mentally ill, as Grissom noted. But the extremity of his situation has prompted fervid responses locally and nationally. "It's astonishing, just how many problems in the legal system [this case] exemplifies," said Levin in a phone interview.

Who gets to be sane? Who gets to be accountable? Who gets to be executed? -- Thomas, fully blind and heavily medicated, faces the death penalty as a limit case for Texas' answer to these problematic questions.

To be sure, the crime for which Thomas was capitally charged was horrific. Grissom's account bears reprinting:

By 2004, Andre was 21 years old, deeply mentally ill, and receiving no treatment. On the bright, clear morning of March 27, he charged up the stairs to the third-floor apartment where Laura [his estranged wife] lived and kicked in the door. Her boyfriend had already left for work. Andre was holding three knives, one for each of his intended victims. He first encountered Laura, who ran toward him, screaming “No!” Andre plunged a knife into her chest. He then reached in and pulled out what he believed was her heart (he had, in fact, extracted part of her lung). Next, he headed for the children’s room, where Andre Jr. and 1-year-old Leyha were sleeping. Andre held down his 4-year-old son and stabbed him before moving on to Leyha. He carved out each of the children’s hearts. Finally, Andre jammed a knife into his own chest three times and lay down beside Laura on the living room floor, expecting to die. Confounded when he didn’t, he slipped the organs he had removed into his pocket and walked more than five miles home. A few hours later, he went to the Sherman Police Department, where he confessed to the murders and asked if he would be forgiven. “I thought it was what God wanted me to do,” he later told investigators.

After undergoing emergency surgery to repair his life-threatening stab wounds, Andre was moved to the Grayson County jail, where his behavior became more and more psychotic. He gestured wildly and announced that he was going to save the world. He claimed to be “the thirteenth warrior on the dollar bill” and said that Laura and the children weren’t dead but that their hearts had been freed from evil.

There is no correct procedure to deal with Andre Thomas. The questions of how someone ends up in such a tormented state -- the conditions that make the above horrors possible -- are far beyond the purview of this writing. We can say, however, that there are many profoundly wrong ways to deal with Andre Thomas -- and these are the ways he has been dealt with.

Firstly, he was deemed competent to stand trial -- trial for capital murder at that -- after he had already gouged out his eye and exhibited other psychotic tendencies. While considered competent to be tried for a death sentence, it's worth noting that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice deemed him incompetent to speak with a journalist. As Grissom wrote, while she was permitted to tour the psychiatric facility currently holding Thomas, was not allowed to speak with him. "John Hurt, a spokesman for the department, explained that the policy is meant to protect inmates 'who may not be mentally competent to sit for an interview.' It was a remarkable response given that Andre had already been deemed competent for trial and is currently considered competent to be executed," wrote Grissom.

But this is just one of many paradoxes and absurdities characterizing Thomas' treatment --  among them the fact that the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals found the defendant “clearly ‘crazy’ but... also ‘sane’ under Texas law."

Undergirding the case is the problem of racism in the criminal justice system. Thomas, a young  African American man in a small town in Texas was tried in front of an all white jury for the murder of a white woman. Four jurors, Levin told Salon, had written on a questionnaire that they objected to interracial relationships. According to the attorney and legal scholar, the prosecutor went on a "soliloquy... invoking race based fears" about the defendant "getting out and dating your daughters."

Thomas was sentenced to death and -- like all those so condemned -- was confined to a six-by-10 ft. cell for 23 hours a day. The facility, says Levin, showed "shocking inadequacy" in dealing with Thomas' mental deterioration. There, the convicted man gouged out his other eye and rendered himself fully blind. Thomas and his legal team currently await the decision of a federal court on whether he is sane enough to be executed.

As a limit case, Thomas highlights the juridical determinations around the right to life: What are the conditions necessary for the state to kill a person? The arguments in Thomas' first capital murder trial fell around whether the killer knew right from wrong at the time of carrying out the murders. Now, the terrain of debate has shifted to whether Thomas is competent enough to comprehend his own capital punishment. Levin argues that her client lacks any such rational understanding and that, although treated with anti-psychotic medicines, he still hears voices, she said.

The entire legal framework is troubling. The idea of justice at play here rests on a person being able to understand, in advance of their execution, why and for what they are being killed. Grissom cites Thurgood Marshall's 1986 majority SCOTUS opinion on the issue of executing the mentally ill, which set up the current legal standard: "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 Marshall. While, of course, many of us would also vehemently challenge the retributive value of the state executing persons with full comprehension of why they have been so singled out to face death, it seems clear that Marshall's "comprehension" condition sets up profound problems when it comes to the mentally ill.

When it comes to the intellectually disabled (referred to in U.S. law as "mentally retarded") the story is slightly different. The Supreme Court has ruled that the "mentally retarded", as well as juveniles, cannot be held to the same standards of culpability as most adults and thus the death penalty in such cases would violate the constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Of course, even in cases of proven mental disability, death sentences are still carried out. The state of Georgia, for example, is currently pushing to have a stay of execution removed in the case of 38-year-old Warren Hill, a death row inmate found mentally retarded by physicians. Mental illness -- where there is sometimes possibility of medicating a prisoner into a state of execution-worthy comprehension -- brings up even more troubling grey areas for capital sentencing.

Levin told Salon that there is a "deficit in forums to even discuss how to redress the issues this case raises." If the case of Andre Thomas -- schizophrenic, self-blinded and facing death by the state -- doesn't urge the importance of such forums, it's hard to imagine what might.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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Andre Thomas Capital Punishment Death Penalty Mental Illness Murder Texas