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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

THE STATE'S CONDEMNED live in the Allan B. Polunsky Unit, just outside of Livingston, Texas. It looks as one might imagine a death row would look—a series of imposing concrete structures surrounded by excessive razor wire and four guard towers.

The Polunsky unit didn't become death row until 1999, after seven inmates tried to escape from the old facility. At the time, the Polunsky unit was called the Terrell unit, after Charles Terrell, a Dallas insurance executive and a former board chairman at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. But when it became death row, Terrell asked to have his name removed. He was uncomfortable being associated with capital punishment because he had problems with how it was administered.

The DAs could claim  whatever they wanted, but this guy was as crazy as a peach-orchard boar, and prison officials were going to treat him as such.

Almost a decade later, Terrell would sign a letter supporting a state moratorium on the death penalty. The letter laid out his concerns about racial fairness in some parts of Texas, the absence of DNA testing when it was possible to do it, and his opinion that life without the possibility of parole was in fact more punitive for young offenders than a death sentence. He added that he was the only person he knew of who ever had his name removed from a building. Documents generated by the prison system in the Thomas case, however, still read "facility POLUNSKY (formerly TERRELL)." In one final touch of irony, Terrell was born in Sherman.

Death row is not designed for rehabilitation. There are no programs to attend, no degrees to obtain. The main business carried on is waiting. Those lucky enough to come to the row mentally intact may be able to hold themselves together through the years of aloneness by reading, talking to prisoners in nearby cells, or listening to the radio. But inmates like Andre, who are already debilitated by mental illness, do not get better. There are no avenues for it. The cells at Polunsky are smaller than a basketball free-throw lane, the prisoners are on lockdown more than 90 percent of the time, and there is no human contact at all. Andre still wore the mittens to protect his remaining eye, and his meals were brown-bag because he couldn't be trusted with utensils. He was taking the same medication he had been taking at the state hospital.

His diagnosis on death row, paranoid schizophrenia, was not the diagnosis prosecutors had argued to the jury that put him there, but the prison records said "no stop date indicated" for his medication. In short, the DAs could argue whatever they wanted to avoid an insanity verdict, but this guy was, as they sometimes say in Texas, "crazy as a peach-orchard boar," and prison officials were going to treat him as such.

Every once in a while there were skeptics. Like the doctor who didn't trust Andre's hallucinations because the voices always told him to "do things he wants to do anyway. People who have hallucinations do not recognize they are hallucinations." Prisons, of course, are houses of skepticism. Consider this entry from an early psychological intake form: "R eyelid is in a fixed, closed position. R eye seems to be missing (as pt claims)." Apparently the mittens weren't enough of a giveaway.

"The government is conspiring to read my mind. That's why I ripped out my right eye. That's the righteous side."

And so it went from March 2005 to the summer of 2008—lots of complaints from Andre about the voices, an attempt at cutting himself with a razor blade, and the periodic suggestion that he was faking the whole thing. Mostly, though, the prison records depict a barely-getting-by paranoid schizophrenic who knows he is seriously mentally ill but doesn't have any idea what to do about it. Sometimes the voices would scream at him to "bash my head," as he put it. Other times he thought six-inch demons were coming out of the walls and playing music by the rock group Queen. And then there were days that he said he felt fine and was writing music for his mother.

On July 14, 2008, Andre managed to procure something sharp and slash a seven-centimeter gash in his throat, requiring eight stitches. He insisted that he was the cause of all the problems in the world, and that if he killed himself all the problems would stop. The next day, he reported that he had been reading his Bible and got confused because he wasn't sure if it was the voices or his own thoughts that were telling him to kill himself. During a psychiatric assessment one week later, he explained that "The government is conspiring to read my mind. That's why I ripped out my right eye. That's the righteous side. They can't hear my thoughts no more. I cut my throat. Gotta shed a little blood to save the world. Like the guy in the dayroom told me, "Don't lighten up, tighten up!'"

Prison officials were concerned enough to send him to the system's psychiatric facility, but they returned him to his regular cell within a month. It was only eight stitches, and he clearly could have inflicted far more damage.

Andre had always believed in déjà vu—except he was convinced that he was reliving days and weeks in their totality.

Then again, maybe the episode signaled the start of another slide. After three years on the row, there was little question that Andre was getting worse. Or maybe it's more accurate to say that events were beginning to recur again. Andre had always believed in what we all call déjà vu—except he was convinced that he was reliving days and weeks in their totality. A year prior to the killings, he complained to friends that life kept repeating itself. And since things were happening over and over again, it meant they weren't really happening at all. Shortly after his crime, when he explained to the nurse that his wife and children weren't really dead, he had said, "This is déjà vu from all reality."

By late that fall, Andre was acting much as he had in the weeks leading up to the crime. He felt suicidal again and asked for help, but refused to take his meds. He stopped talking and wouldn't eat. He came out to see his lawyer with Scotch tape clumsily covering his mouth, and insisted on writing his answers to her questions on a glass partition with his finger. It's conceivable that Andre's relapse was related to an incident in late November, when he found himself in a cell next to an inmate who swore he was the Antichrist. This enraged Andre, who believed he had already done God's work in removing the Antichrist from the earthly realm.

Perhaps what he did next—the thing that got everybody's attention again—resulted from a combination of all these things: On December 9, 2008, Andre ripped out his left eye. His only eye. And he ate it.

As he explained some days later, he didn't want the government to read his thoughts, so he ate the eye because he was certain they would figure out some way to put it back in. He said he had been reading the Book of Revelations, and felt sympathy for the devil because it wasn't all Satan's fault. After all, Andre was supposed to have been aborted.

AFTER THE SECOND eye removal, it was clear that the Polunsky unit was no longer the appropriate home for Andre. He was packed off to Jester IV, a state prison psychiatric unit. As the name implies, Jester IV is one of a series of Jester units, all located in Richmond, Texas, just southwest of Houston. The complex is surrounded by cornfields. Indeed, the property once hosted the Harlem Plantation, which became a prison farm in the late 1800s. It was renamed in honor of former Gov. Beauford H. Jester, who served from 1946 to 1949, and was in the process of reforming the state prisons when he died in office of a heart attack.

There are a few other death row inmates at Jester IV, but the unit is reserved for the mentally ill. Andre is still locked in a small cell 23 hours a day, but by all accounts Jester IV is a quieter place. He seems more comfortable around other mentally ill prisoners, and he does not believe, as he did at Polunsky, that they are scheming against him. He hasn't yet learned to read Braille, and the medicine he is on now tends to knock him out for large portions of the day. While he is awake he often breaks into song. He is a big fan of Depeche Mode.

Joe Brown, the district attorney of Grayson County, said he was surprised to hear that Andre had removed his second eye, but he did not call it a second impulsive act. He simply announced that the state would gather together Andre's records and evaluate the situation.

Eight days after swallowing his remaining eye, Andre said that the government had the one he didn't eat. He wanted it back.

The records themselves are remarkable if only to show how acceptable bizarre thoughts can become in a prison psychiatric setting. Eight days after swallowing his remaining eye, for example, Andre reports that he is hearing voices, including that of God, and says the government has the eye he didn't eat and he wants it back. The evaluation form accompanying these remarks indicates that he is not presenting delusional or paranoid symptoms, and that his "insight/judgment" is fair. Other records are similarly disingenuous.

Four years have passed since the second eyeball incident, but Andre's prosecutors have not reported back about their record-gathering or any subsequent evaluation. Texas continues to forcefully pursue Andre's execution. No state authority figure has expressed hesitation about ending the life of a man who intentionally blinded himself, nor has there been any move by the district attorney to reconsider Andre's mental state at the time of the killings.

The only one who has revisited the issue, apart from the lawyers who are now appealing his sentence in the Texas federal courts, is Andre himself. He spoke about it with a nurse shortly after he slashed his own throat—back when he still had one eye to see with: "I killed my wife and two kids," he said. "My wife was Jezebel. God told me to, so I cut out their hearts. I fucked up though: I heard another voice. I thought it was God, so I listened. It told me not to complete the ritual and don't burn the hearts. So, I threw them out." This failure, he explained, would bring consequences: "Before 2012, they will come back and be mad I killed them."

But now it is 2013. His family hasn't come back, and won't. Andre Thomas remains in his tiny cell on death row, waiting. And no one, not even Andre, is quite certain what he is waiting for.

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