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How Crazy Is Too Crazy to Be Executed?

The voices told Andre Thomas to gouge out his eyes. But even that hasn't convinced the state of Texas to reconsider his death sentence.

| Tue Feb. 12, 2013 6:02 AM EST
Andre Thomas is escorted by officers during his 2005 murder trial.
Chris Jennings/Herald Democrat

Years later, after Andre Thomas had been convicted of killing his estranged wife, his 4-year-old son and her 13-month-old daughter in the most bizarre case in Grayson County history, after he had received a death sentence and been told that it would be imposed at the appropriate future time, after he had been dispatched to Texas' death row to wait his turn with the other condemned men and women, the prosecutors were still talking about "the eyeball issue."

Certainly there were other details that made the crime uniquely memorable. For one thing, Andre had cut out the children's hearts and returned home with the organs in his pockets. For another, he was careful to use three different knives so that the blood from each body would not cross-contaminate, thereby ensuring that the demons inside each of them would die. He then stabbed himself in the chest, but he did not die as he had hoped. In fact, he was well enough to leave a message on his wife's parents' phone explaining that he thought he was in hell, and he managed to confess to the police what he had done before they took him in for emergency surgery.

The entire episode had biblical overtones—Andre had convinced himself that his wife was Jezebel, his son the Antichrist, and her daughter just plain evil. In short, the case had enough spectacular aspects to keep the most jaded of court watchers buzzing for months, but it was the eyeball issue that garnered most of the attention. And that was only the beginning.

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But the beginning of the crime is never the beginning of the story. A case like this one doesn't drop cleanly out of the sky, just as no one suddenly wakes up one day and decides to take an Uzi to the mall. Andre, who was raised in Sherman, Texas, a small town about 60 miles north of Dallas, had gnarled roots, and it was next to impossible not to trip over them. People like me, who do capital defense work for a living—and lest you be curious, I have never been an attorney for Andre Thomas—like to draw family trees, because patterns of mental illness and substance abuse and domestic discord and parental neglect tend to emerge from their branches like an old Polaroid developing on the kitchen table.

Andre's family tree had all of these patterns going back two generations, and likely you could have gone back two more and found the same assortment of disabilities. This is not only true of stricken souls like Andre—take a look at the family trees of Ernest Hemingway, or the composer Robert Schumann, and you'll see manic depression and suicide running through their branches as well. But Andre's was more tortured than most. You'd have to look long and hard to find a pedigree more predictive of disaster.

Andre's grandmother, Vivian, was already a full-blown drunk by her mid-teens, so it's hardly surprising that she fell in with drunks as well. Johnny, Andre's grandfather, beat Vivian regularly, occasionally threatened to kill her with his gun, and once pushed her to the ground when she was pregnant, breaking the foot of her child in utero. Johnny was vicious but also strange—one of Vivian's children remembered the time he threw all the food in the house into the yard.

Vivian had never been selective with men. She had nine children with five of them starting at the age of 14. After Vivian left Johnny, she married a man named Walter Martin, and the pattern continued—heavy drinking and a steady diet of domestic violence. It was in 1973, during one of their battles, that Walter put a gun to Vivian's head. Andre's uncle Gregory, who was all of 17 at the time, tried to pull the gun away, and that's when Walter shot him in the stomach, killing him. Walter would later boast that he "planted" one of Vivian's children, and fully intended to "plant another one."

Vivian's daughter Rochelle, who was closest in age to Gregory, never recovered from his killing. She, too, drank heavily, suffered from depression, and according to her siblings was sexually molested by Walter. Rochelle was Andre's mother, and that was half the genetic pie.

Andre's mostly absentee father, Danny Thomas, came from practically the same background—generational alcoholism, violence, mental illness. One of his brothers suffered from alcohol-induced dementia. Another was locked up in a state mental retardation ward. Looking at both wings of the family side-by-side was like snipping away at a piece of folded paper in elementary school and opening it to find two identical sides of a snowflake.

Walter would boast that he "planted" one of Vivian's children—killed him, that is—and fully intended to "plant another one."

But what did it all add up to when you stacked Andre's background against the removal of people's hearts? Alcohol, violence, mental illness, trauma—that isn't an unusual background for a death row inmate. Cable TV and criminology courses are loaded with that sort of thing. It was the eyeball issue that made people realize this was more than just the most bizarre case in Grayson County history.

Yet even the eyeball issue, like the Polaroid on the table, was a slow-developing story. It probably started with Vivian, who claimed to have a gift from God—more of a torment, really. She believed she received divine messages through dreams and visions, only she "didn't handle the gifts," as one of her children recalled. "They handled her." Vivian saw her talent as a line that one could approach but never cross—a line separating dreams and visions from madness and delusion.

It is almost certain that Rochelle, the next generation of the gifted, crossed that line. She, too, believed that she had been chosen to hear God's messages—that her mother's gift had been passed down to her. This proved a curse for her and Andre alike. God often told Rochelle what to do, and she was certain that He was telling her son as well.

Andre's grandmother "didn't handle the gifts," one of her children recalled of her divine visions. "They handled her."

Andre was the fifth of Rochelle's six children—all boys. By the time he came along, in 1983, Rochelle already had sons by three different men. She moved around constantly, and often relied on a local church to pay her utility bills. Yet despite living in one of the most chaotic situations in which a little boy might find himself, Andre somehow thrived. He received outstanding marks in kindergarten and first grade, and was placed in his school's "gifted and talented" program. His second-grade teacher described him as a "strong and delightful student."

Andre's mother, meanwhile, couldn't even say where her son went to school—as she later testified, she had so many children she simply couldn't keep track of them. This is not quite as absurd as it might sound: Thanks to his mother's transience, Andre attended three different schools in three different cities in two different states—and that was just second grade.

Around third grade Andre started telling his friends, apparently in earnest, that he was Raiden, a character from the video game Mortal Kombat. Like his mother and grandmother before him, he was hearing voices. He made no secret of it. Lots of people knew that Andre suffered from what the professionals called "auditory hallucinations." At 10, he attempted suicide by slitting his wrists. He would try again three years later, sawing at his arm with a butcher knife. Both attempts were prompted by Andre's mother saying she should have aborted him.

At 10, Andre attempted suicide by slitting his wrists. He would try again three years later, sawing at his arm with a butcher knife.

He also began dabbling in petty crimes. When he was 11, he was charged with criminal mischief after damaging some golf carts, and later with theft for stealing a car and driving it into a ditch. He faced the consequences alone. No parent or guardian was on hand to support him when he first met with his probation officer to determine a case plan. His mother often would find excuses to miss the appointments, on one occasion telling the probation officer it was "too cold" for her son to be outside.

As Andre grew older, his grades slipped and he was forced to repeat seventh grade. He managed to climb back into the gifted and talented program, only to regress as his family life deteriorated further. When his mother told him of a plan to move the family to Oklahoma, he informed his probation officer, and a judge placed him in a juvenile detention facility. The justice system would become Andre's surrogate parent, keeping tabs on his whereabouts and overseeing his affairs. He once asked the judge for a work permit so that he could pay off his restitution and court fees, only to be told that at 14 he was too young to work.

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