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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 7:02 AM EST
Photoillustration by Tim J Luddy

AT AGE 16, on top of all of his other problems, Andre became a father. He had been seeing Laura Boren for several years when Little Andre came along. He dropped out of school, earned his GED, and began doing various low-wage jobs—at one point digging graves at Sherman's West Hill Cemetery. The couple found their own place for a while, but later ended up moving in with Laura's parents, and then with Andre's mother. They got married on Andre's 18th birthday, and Rochelle kicked them out of her house two weeks later. With nowhere they could live together, the newlyweds parted ways. Laura took Little Andre back to her parents' house and Andre moved in with his brother. After four and a half months, they separated for good.

Andre's world, already tenuous, was falling apart. He lost some seasonal work mowing grass, and struggled to pay for heat and electricity. And because his place lacked utilities, Laura began scaling back his visits with his son. Andre remarked to his father that he was in a circle he couldn't break out of.

As the date of the murders approached, Andre stopped talking for days at a time, placing duct tape over his mouth.

He kept trying, though, and sought out counseling for his suicidal feelings and the voices that wouldn't keep quiet. By the time he was 19, they were blaring in his head like a brass band in a nightmarish parade, and he had attempted suicide several more times. As the date of the murders approached, Andre's behavior grew ever weirder. He stopped talking for days at a time, placing duct tape over his mouth. He fixated on the dollar bill, imagining a code for his salvation among its symbols.

Three weeks before the killings, he overdosed on Coricidin—a brand of cough medicine—and wound up at a mental health facility in Sherman, where he asked the staff to kill him. "Life is too much for me to handle," he said. Somehow they let him leave on his assurance that he was going straight to a nearby hospital. When he failed to show up, a warrant went out for his immediate apprehension, but the police failed to enforce it.

Two days before the killings Andre overdosed again, and stabbed himself with a knife. He walked into the ER at the Texoma Medical Center, where an attending physician deemed him suicidal, and quoted him saying he was trying to "cross over into heaven."

"Thomas," the ER doctor wrote, "is psychotic. He thinks something like Holodeck on Star Trek is happening to him."

The doctor would later testify that Andre was "really mentally ill," as if to stress that this wasn't just your run-of-the-mill crazy person. And then there was this detail from the physician's records: "Thomas," he wrote, "is psychotic. He thinks something like Holodeck on Star Trek is happening to him." If you don't know what that is, and there is no good reason you should, a holodeck is a simulated reality facility—a place where nothing is real.

Finally, the patient wanted to know whether he had volunteered for his life, or been forced to live it. Maybe that was the final straw. The doctor referred Andre to the hospital's mental health unit and filled out an emergency detention order to hold him against his will. But while staffers waited for a judge to sign the order, Andre simply wandered off. The hospital called the police, but there's no evidence that officers went looking for him at the home of Andre's mother or any of his other relatives. The next time they saw him, he was walking into the Sherman police station to confess to killing his family.

You might wonder what Andre was thinking when he removed the children's hearts and placed them in his pockets to take home—along with a piece of Laura's lung, which he mistook for her heart. By his own account, he had received a message from God telling him to kill Jezebel, the Antichrist, and a related evil spirit. The only other clue was the dollar bill he had folded lengthwise and left next to his wife's leg, exposing the pyramid with the eye at the top.

Pull out a dollar bill and look at the back for yourself: Above the eye are the words Annuit Coeptis: "He approves our undertakings." It's likely you haven't thought much about this, but Andre did—for hours at a time. Maybe he was seeking approval, and the dollar bill served to confirm the words that kept pounding in his head. But two days later, when he was confessing his crime to the police, he called the eye at the top of the pyramid "evil." A day after that, he explained that he was the "thirteenth warrior on the dollar bill." (It just so happens that there are 13 steps on the pyramid for the 13 original states, but no reference to warriors.)

His wife and kids weren't really dead, Andre told a jailhouse nurse. He had removed their hearts to free them from evil.

A further explanation followed: According to the notes of the nurse who was monitoring Andre in his glass-walled observation cell at the Grayson County jail, his wife and kids weren't really dead. He had removed their hearts to free them from evil.

Andre refused the anti-psychotic medication the jail doctors prescribed him, but at least he had the Bible, and when he wasn't acting belligerently or gesticulating wildly or ranting about evil he would read from it. One can only wonder what he thought when he turned to Matthew 5:29—particularly in light of his obsession with the eye on the pyramid. "If your right eye causes you to sin," the passage reads, "gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell."

And that is precisely what Andre did. Sitting in his cell, reading the Bible, he gouged out his right eye with his fingers. Had it finally dawned on him, six days after the killings, what he had done?

THERE IS A WORD for almost everything in this world, and there is a word for the intentional removal of one's own eye: auto-enucleation. What little medical literature exists on this malady states the obvious: It is an extraordinarily rare form of self-mutilation brought about by extreme psychosis. It occurs with paranoid delusions, often of a religious nature, that accompany schizophrenia, and is occasionally referred to as Oedipism.

The reference, of course, is to the myth of Oedipus the King, who blinds himself after learning that he has fulfilled a prophecy by murdering his father and sleeping with his mother. For Oedipus, it is not schizophrenia or delusions, but rather his own guilt and the merciless Fates that cause him to stab out his eyes. Yet even blinding himself can't save him: "I know death will not ever come to me through sickness or in any natural way," he laments at the end of the Sophocles play Oedipus Rex. "I have been preserved for some unthinkable fate."

After removing his eye, Andre was placed in a secure wing of North Texas State Hospital, whose doctors later pronounced him fit to stand trial.

When Andre took his eye out, the legal proceedings stopped in their tracks. Who knew what the man might say or do in front of 12 jurors? For starters, the authorities quickly equipped him with big mittens—fastened to his wrists to prevent their removal—to protect his other eye. Three doctors evaluated him—one from the jail, one appointed by the court, and one brought in by the state. All of them said that Andre suffered from some form of schizophrenia. He was declared incompetent for trial and shipped off to the secure wing of North Texas State Hospital, where he continued to hear voices and talk to himself, and seemed to have a recurring dream where scorpions and tarantulas were trying to eat him.

But this wasn't the sort of case likely to fade from public view. Maybe that was why Andre's diagnosis was changed during his stay at the state hospital. At the end of 47 days of evaluations and medications, the doctors concluded that most of his hallucinations were substance-induced. His discharge order seems contradictory: The doctors said Andre was malingering by exaggerating his mental illness, and yet they made him wear the mittens throughout his stay. They also noted that he was consistently cooperative with staff, behavior that is not at all typical of malingerers. Andre was now competent to stand trial, they wrote, and the court so found.

Still, the eyeball issue had gotten everybody's attention. At one point the district attorney of Grayson County had called it the desperate act of a man who feared punishment, but as the trial date approached, the prosecution seemed more circumspect. After all, the defense would surely argue that Andre was insane, and could even the most hardened DA argue that he was faking it—that he had scooped out his own eye to manipulate the jury?

Texas alone is responsible for 37 percent of all executions in the United States since 1977.

For the prosecution, one big decision remained: Would the state seek the death penalty? After all, no murder, no matter how heinous, depraved, or just plain bizarre, requires it. Ever since the Supreme Court outlawed mandatory death sentences 37 years ago, these decisions have been left to the prosecutors. In Texas, district attorneys have used their discretion broadly, not only in seeking the death penalty but also in making sure it is carried out. The Lone Star state alone is responsible for 37 percent of all executions in the United States since 1977, when the death penalty came back into vogue.

But discretion has its limits. Race, for one, cannot be considered at all. Not to say it never is—just that it is unconstitutional to do so. Yet race tends to play a big role in capital cases, especially ones like the Thomas case, where the victim is white and the defendant is black.

Laura Boren Thomas, Andre's late wife, was white. The children he killed were mixed race. These facts were particularly important when it came to jury selection. Under questioning by the lawyers, 4 of the 12 eventual jurors said they were opposed to people of mixed-race backgrounds marrying and/or having children. One even stated that he did not believe "God intended for this." Andre's court-appointed lawyers did not object, and the jurors were seated.

Andre's prosecutors used the "shuffle," an only-in-Texas option, which resulted in an all-white jury.

In fact, for this particular jury selection, the prosecutors invoked an option available only in Texas. It's called the "shuffle." The pool of potential jurors, known as a venire, are seated in a room, and with no information other than what the jurors look like, either side can request that they be shuffled—reseated in a different order.

The order of the venire, it turns out, is crucial to the jury's final makeup. That's because each juror is questioned in turn, and if lawyers from either side want to exercise their right to disqualify someone, they have to do it then and there. If it looks like one side is striking a juror based on race—which is not allowed—the other side can mount a challenge. Hence the shuffle: At Andre's trial, there were initially six African Americans seated in the first two rows. After the shuffle—which proceeded without any objection by the defense—there were no blacks in the first five rows. Ultimately, two black jurors were questioned and dismissed. When all was said and done, the entire jury—not to mention the judge and all of the lawyers—was white.

IT'S FAIR TO SAY that race played a role in more than just the jury selection. The crime and the trial both took place in Sherman, a town still remembered for a shocking lynching and subsequent race riot back in 1930. In the spring of that year, a black farmhand named George Hughes was accused of raping a young white woman. He surrendered to the police, and a trial was set for six days later.

False rumors that the woman had been mutilated spread across the town, and on the morning of trial, as many as 5,000 people descended on the Grayson County courthouse hell-bent on revenge. As the trial commenced, the mob battled with state police and set the building on fire. Hughes, who had been placed in a county vault for his protection, died. The townspeople pulled his corpse into the street, dragged it behind a car, and hung it from a tree. In the mayhem that followed, most of the town's black businesses, and one residence, were burned to the ground. The governor imposed martial law, and for two weeks the state militia took over the town. Sherman's black community never fully recovered from the trauma—for the next 65 years, not a single black doctor or lawyer practiced within its boundaries.

At the sentencing, the DA asked jurors if they were willing to risk Andre "asking your daughter out, or your granddaughter out?"

It was here, in Sherman, that Andre Thomas not only married a white woman, but became friends with a number of others, who showed up at the sentencing to testify on his behalf. This did not go unnoticed by the prosecutor. In the last sentence of his closing argument in favor of the death penalty, he mentioned the "string of girls that came up here," and asked the jurors if they were willing to risk Andre "asking your daughter out, or your granddaughter out?"

Statements like these tended to distract the jury from the more pressing question of Andre's mental health problems. Given the grisly details of the crime—and the eyeball incident—more than a few observers were undoubtedly left wondering just how crazy a person could be and still face execution.

There is no simple answer to this question. State courts across the country have struggled to define "intellectual disability" (also known as mental retardation) since 2002, when the Supreme Court ruled that retarded people are exempt from capital punishment. The high court has also banned the execution of anyone who was under 18 at the time of his crime, but no court has ruled that severe mental illness makes a person ineligible for the death penalty.

The Supreme Court's latest foray into the issue involved the case of Scott Louis Panetti, another Texas death row inmate. Panetti, a diagnosed schizophrenic who killed his in-laws, defended himself in court wearing a purple cowboy suit. As if that weren't enough, he asked to subpoena Jesus, John F. Kennedy, and the pope. While the justices didn't offer any clear standard on how crazy is too crazy, they suggested that severe mental illness might render someone's "perception of reality so distorted" that he cannot be constitutionally executed.

As it stands, a person cannot be put to death if he or she is deemed "insane," but that's a narrow legal distinction. Whether at trial or on the eve of execution, an insanity defense hinges on a defendant's inability to connect his crime with the consequences. Absent that connection, neither deterrence nor retribution is served by execution. As the legal scholar Sir William Blackstone put it more than 200 years ago, madness is its own punishment.

Almost every state, including Texas, now utilizes some version of what is known as the M'Naghten Rule. Daniel M'Naghten, an Englishman, was put on trial in 1843 for fatally shooting a civil servant he apparently mistook for the prime minister. He had delusions of persecution, and a number of doctors testified that he was unable to hold himself back. When the prosecution produced no witness to say otherwise, M'Naghten was found not guilty by reason of insanity. He spent most of the rest of his life at the State Criminal Lunatic Asylum in London's Bethlem Royal Hospital, which locals pronounced "Bedlam."

Thus was coined a word we associate with chaos—and it was chaos that ensued when M'Naghten was acquitted and the public took the verdict poorly. What emerged amid the outcry was the generally applied law that an insanity defense would only be available to someone who cannot understand the "nature and quality" of his act.

Andre's trial hinged on this very question, but with one wrinkle. In Texas, if your insanity is caused in any way by voluntary intoxication, you cannot use it as a defense. The prosecution's doctor-experts testified that Andre was well aware he was behaving wrongly, and that his crimes may have been triggered by his cough medicine overdoses, drinking, and pot smoking.

The defense called to the witness stand doctors who pointed to Andre's history of mental illness apart from any substance abuse. And hadn't the man removed his own eye!? Was the state seriously suggesting that Andre's auto-enucleation was a ruse? No. Instead, the prosecutors argued that it "was an impulsive act." They didn't dwell on it, of course. There's no requirement that attorneys have to spend lots of time talking about evidence that hurts their case. They just said it was an impulsive act, and moved on.

The jury moved on with them, and Andre's insanity plea was rejected. He was found guilty and, four days later, sentenced to death. It turned out that an impulsive act, even coupled with orders from God and the removal of hearts, could not soften the punishment for murdering three in Grayson County. And so, less than a year after killing his family, Andre went off to death row.

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