† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
“[T]he Eighth Amendment prohibits a State from carrying out a sentence of death upon a prisoner who is insane.” Ford v. Wainwright, 477 U. S. 399, 409–410 (1986) . ~ Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority in Panetti v. Quarterman (2007)
Andre Thomas is Both Mad and Now Blind, As is the System About to Murder Him…
by nancy a heitzeg
Much of the nation continues to move away from the machinery of death ; Death Penalty Information Center reports a near record low number of death sentences and executions as well as additional states considering abolition. Still, Texas marches on. The state continued to lead the nation in both executions and , perhaps, controversy, including sending to death in defiance of Atkins v Virginia, one Marvin Wilson, IQ 61.
And, now, Andre Thomas – a man with a documented life-long history of extreme mental illness, a man who, hearing the voice of God, killed his estranged wife and 2 children , a man who himself then later removed first his right eye, according to Biblical proscriptions, then later removed his left, and ate it – awaits word from a federal district court in Beaumont, Texas as to whether he is sane enough to die.
Readers are encouraged to explore details of the case in several excellent pieces. See Texas Monthly in-depth new feature by journalist Brandi Grissom, Texas Tribune’s Timeline of the Case and the companion Six Part Series, “Trouble in Mind”, and Mother Jones, “How Crazy is Too Crazy to be Executed?” You can hear an excerpt of actor and death penalty activist Mike Farrell reading an excerpt of the piece here.
What follows is a brief overview of the extraordinary series of events in the case of Andre Thomas:
- “Mr. Thomas is a paranoid schizophrenic who has heard voices in his head since the age of nine years old. Unable to bear the constant voices in his head, by the time he was a teenager Mr. Thomas began to seek professional help – and did so numerous times. The doctors, psychologists and counselors who did see him all recognized the extreme nature of his mental illness.
- In the weeks before the murders for which he was sentenced to death, those same professionals issued detention orders, fearing what Andre would do to himself, or others. Twice the police failed to carry out those orders.
- Just days after the last order was issued, Andre, following the commands of what he believed to be the voice of God, stabbed his estranged wife, their four-year old son, and his wife’s thirteen-month old child by another man, and cut out the hearts of the children and a part of his wife’s lung. He then stabbed himself multiple times in the heart and lay down to die. When he did not, he stuffed his family’s organs in his pocket, walked home, attempted to call his wife, and turned himself into police.
- A week later, following the dictates of the Bible, ( Matthew 5:29: “If your right eye causes you to stumble, 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.”) he took out his own eye.
- He was declared incompetent for trial, and sent to a state hospital. A mere forty-seven days later he was declared competent, and returned to the county jail to stand trial. In short order, he was convicted and sentenced to death.
- While on death row in 2008, Mr. Thomas removed his remaining eye, and ate it, believing that doing so would stop the government from reading his thoughts.
- Since that time, he has been housed and heavily medicated at the Jester IV Unit, a psychiatric facility run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, while the state continues to seek his execution.” ( Case summary via communication with Tristin Aaron)
There are many reasons to call for the abolition of the death penalty — ethics, high costs, a disturbing pattern of conviction/exoneration/execution of those who are actually innocent, cruel execution methods, staggering evidence of class bias that correlates with attorney incompetence for indigent defendants, and an historically grounded, statistically documented correlation of the death penalty with race.
Nearly all are present in the case of Andre Thomas, including the taint of racial discrimination as an all-white jury, selected by “shuffling”, presided in judgement of his killing of his estranged white wife.
But the immediate questions raised by the Thomas case, center on his mental illness. Given his history should he even had been declared competent to stand trial at all? Why did prosecutors pursue a death sentence ? And, now why is the State of Texas continuing to seek execution for a man so obviously impaired? As journalist Brandi Grissom notes, “The toughest questions that Andre’s case presents are not political, but moral in nature. As a society, we want justice for the victims of his horrific crime. But what if Andre is not capable of understanding right from wrong or of comprehending why he is facing execution?”
As prisons and jails replace mental health services for the poor, the issue of mental illness and the death penalty becomes increasing urgent. In their Annual Report 2012, The Death Penalty Information Center noted that at least 10 of those executed or scheduled to die had shown signs of severe mental illness. ( See also Mother Jones, Thirteen Men Condemned to Die Despite Severe Mental Illness ). While the Supreme Court has banned execution for the intellectually disabled and those deemed so insane they cannot tell right from wrong, there are no exclusions for those who suffer from schizophrenia, paranoia or other severe mental disorders.
Or, so it seems for Andre Thomas, whose death is still pursued by a System that is equally Mad and Blind . Not blind in the way we are told Lady Justice must be — blind to bias, to race, color and creed. No, blind to Mercy, to common sense, to Justice itself.
Nearly 20 years ago in yet another Texas case, Justice Harry Blackmun , after struggling with capital cases dating back 20 years further, declared that he would no longer “tinker with the machinery of death.” His words are worth re-visiting now :
On February 23, 1994, at approximately 1:00 a.m., Bruce Edwin Callins will be executed by the State of Texas. Intravenous tubes attached to his arms will carry the instrument of death, a toxic fluid designed specifically for the purpose of killing human beings. The witnesses, standing a few feet away, will behold Callins, no longer a defendant, an appellant, or a petitioner, but a man, strapped to a gurney, and seconds away from extinction.
Within days, or perhaps hours, the memory of Callins will begin to fade. The wheels of justice will churn again, and somewhere another jury or another judge will have the unenviable task of determining whether some human being is to live or die. We hope, of course, that the defendant whose life is at risk will be represented by competent counsel – someone who is inspired by the awareness that a less-than-vigorous defense truly could have fatal consequences for the defendant. We hope that the attorney will investigate all aspects of the case, follow all evidentiary and procedural rules, and appear before a judge who is still committed to the protection of defendants’ rights – even now, as the prospect of meaningful judicial oversight has diminished. In the same vein, we hope that the prosecution, in urging the penalty of death, will have exercised its discretion wisely, free from bias, prejudice, or political motive, and will be humbled, rather than emboldened, by the awesome authority conferred by the State.
But even if we can feel confident that these actors will fulfill their roles to the best of their human ability, our collective conscience will remain uneasy….
From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death. For more than 20 years, I have endeavored – indeed, I have struggled – along with a majority of this Court, to develop procedural and substantive rules that would lend more than the mere appearance of fairness to the death penalty endeavor. 1 Rather than continue to coddle the Court’s delusion that the desired level of fairness has been achieved and the need for regulation eviscerated, I feel morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed. It is virtually self-evident to me now that no combination of procedural rules or substantive regulations ever can save the death penalty from its inherent constitutional deficiencies. The basic question – does the system accurately and consistently determine which defendants “deserve” to die? – cannot be answered in the affirmative. (Dissenting in Callins v James , 1994)
We have remained uneasy, and the case of Andre Thomas, perhaps more than any other, should make us more so. The absurdity of the State’s persistence in seeking death, despite all mitigation, error, bias or constitutional violation, stands out here, in most bold relief.
And so we say again, Stop Tinkering with a System Gone Both Mad and Blind….
As Always ~ Abolition.
Action for Andre Thomas
Governor Rick Perry
Office of the Governor
P.O. Box 12428
Austin, Texas 78711-2428
- Information and Referral Hotline [for Texas callers] :
- Information and Referral and Opinion Hotline [for Austin, Texas and out-of-state callers] :(512) 463-1782
- Office of the Governor Main Switchboard [office hours are 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. CST] :
Death Penalty Abolition
- Death Penalty Information Center
- National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
- Death Penalty Discourse Network
- Equal Justice USA
- Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation
- State groups working to abolish the death penalty