Killer who tore out own eyes fuels Texas debate on insanity defense

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by By DIANE JENNINGS / The Dallas Morning News

wfaa.com

Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:46 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 16 at 4:26 PM

Everyone agrees Andre Thomas is crazy.

In 2004, he cut out the hearts of his wife and her two children and pocketed them. Before his murder trial, he plucked out his right eye. In January, while on death row, he ripped out his other eye and swallowed it.

Thus far, courts say Thomas is not insane.

His case is a classic example of the complexities of Texas' insanity defense law - and why some mental health advocates are pushing to change it. Several bills pending in the Texas Legislature would do just that.

With medication and treatment, Thomas eventually was found mentally competent to stand trial, because he could communicate and assist his attorney in his defense. At trial, he was found to be sane at the time of the crime because he knew the difference between right and wrong. And he may be found competent to be executed if he understands what execution means and why he is being killed.

Thomas is "clearly 'crazy,' " a judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals wrote in a concurring denial of his appeal last month, "but he is also 'sane' under Texas law."

Death penalty opponent Maurie Levin, an adjunct professor at the University of Texas School of Law, is appalled. "There is something just horribly wrong with a system that permits somebody as severely mentally ill as Andre Thomas to be found competent to stand trial or sane at the time of that crime," said Levin, who consulted with Thomas' defense attorney.

"We need to change the law," said Brian Shannon, a Texas Tech law professor, because a mentally ill person may know their conduct is wrong but be unable to fully comprehend the situation because the illness affects his "emotional state and thinking and reasoning ability."

Some defendants, such as Thomas, know killing is wrong but say God is telling them to do it.

Proposed legislation

Shannon supports bills pending in the Legislature to broaden the law, in all cases, not just capital cases, to say that a defendant must "appreciate," not just "know," the difference between right and wrong and that the wrong should be a moral one, not just legal.

Such changes, which have been proposed in past sessions, would bring Texas closer to the federal standard on insanity. Supporters are hopeful for passage this time, but for now, the Texas law is similar to that in other states.

"Texas is right within the norm," said Bruce Winick, who teaches law at the University of Miami, and psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the medical school. "People aren't going to say, 'Oh, there goes Texas again.' "

Texas, like many states, narrowed the insanity defense in the 1980s amid outrage over John Hinckley's acquittal in the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan. Hinckley has been confined to a mental hospital since 1982.

Shannon said Texas law also should change to inform jurors what happens to defendants found not guilty by reason of insanity. They do not "just walk free," he said.

A bill authored by Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, would allow jurors to be told that such defendants are sent to a mental hospital if acquitted. Long-term hospitalization is not guaranteed, but "even if someone gets well and is discharged, there's still oversight by the court," Shannon said.

Prosecutors oppose efforts to broaden the not guilty by reason of insanity defense.

"The people who are truly mentally ill, to the degree that their functioning is impaired, I think they are protected by the existing system," said Karla Hackett, who handled the Thomas appeal for Grayson County.

Thomas' attorneys had numerous opportunities to explain the effect of his mental illness to jurors. In the weeks before the murders, Thomas heard voices, behaved strangely and left mental facilities without treatment.

But jurors also heard how he planned the crime, intentionally avoided detection, then turned himself in to authorities. Prosecutors said drinking and drug use also contributed to his psychotic episodes.

"There's no doubt he has mental illness," Hackett said, but " why does he have mental illness?" Under Texas law if the illness is caused or worsened by "voluntary intoxication" such as drug or alcohol abuse, "you don't get to claim insanity."

Levin said the prosecution is implying that "if he hadn't been intoxicated, he wasn't crazy, he was faking. I think Andre's actions since the crime - including gouging out his eye pretrial and taking out a remaining eye three months ago - have proven them wrong."

Jurors weigh in

Jurors heard experts from both sides, but didn't buy the argument that Thomas' mental illness meant he shouldn't be held criminally accountable, Hackett said.

Thomas' appellate attorneys, who declined to comment, claim his trial counsel was ineffective. Appellate courts have disagreed and deferred to the jury's judgment.

"What angers people is when they don't know the whole case," Hackett said. "It's, 'Oh, my gosh, he's got no eyeball, I can't believe they're doing this, he must be crazy.' Well, don't say that until you've been there, until you've sat in the jury box for six weeks."

Hackett said changing the wording of the law would "open up a whole new area of litigation. Now we're going to argue, what does the word appreciate mean? Whose morals?"

Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley said the current law "strikes the appropriate balance."

Informing jurors about what happens if the defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity would make the process less objective, Bradley said. He thinks jurors might speculate about what could happen and be "frightened into convicting the defendant" if they understood the limits of judicial oversight when a defendant is found not guilty by reason of insanity.

High court ruling?

Winick, the University of Miami instructor, expects the U.S. Supreme Court eventually to weigh in on the issue. So far, the court has ruled only that an inmate must be competent to be executed. Last summer the high court also ruled a mentally ill defendant cannot represent himself in court.

But the court has not ruled on whether an inmate may be forcibly medicated to render him competent - and therefore eligible for execution. That issue may be ripe for the Supreme Court to decide.

Winick thinks the court ultimately may have to rule whether it is unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on someone who is sane but mentally ill. That issue is a "natural extension," he said, of the court's decisions prohibiting execution for the mentally retarded and juveniles because they have less ability to understand the consequences of their crimes.

Ron Honberg, director of policy and legal affairs for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said it probably would be years before the issue reaches the court. The decisions regarding mental retardation and juveniles relied heavily on the fact that more than half of the states had abolished the death penalty for those individuals. So far, only a handful of states are even considering a ban on executing the mentally ill. Texas is not among them.

DETERMINING INSANITY

Under current state law, mentally ill defendants undergo tests of mental competence at several stages:

1. Before trial: Defendants must be able to understand the trial process and be able to communicate with their attorney and understand the proceedings. A judge may make the determination at an examining trial where the defendant is represented by an attorney and may present evidence from experts. The defendant may request a jury decision.

2. At the time of the crime: If the defendant claims at trial to be not guilty by reason of insanity, he must prove he did not know his conduct was wrong while committing the crime. As in any criminal trial, he may request a judge or a jury.

3. At the time of execution: If the case results in a death penalty, an inmate cannot be executed if he does not understand what it means to be executed and why he is being put to death. If a claim of incompetence is made, a judge must hold a hearing to determine competency. Lower courts differ on whether an inmate may be forcibly medicated to achieve competency, which makes him eligible for execution. The U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled on forcible medication.

SOURCE: Dallas Morning News research

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