Andre Thomas, suffering from schizophrenia, tore out his right eye after his arrest, citing Matthew 5:29: “if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out…” Despite his obvious severe mental illness, he was tried and sentenced to death. While on death row he gouged out his left eye, and then ate it. He did so to prevent the government from reading his thoughts. He is in a Texas State Prison psychiatric facility, awaiting execution.
Three days before his execution on December 9, 2002, I said goodbye to 62-year-old Linroy Bottoson, who I had just evaluated on death row. He had a life-long diagnosis of severe schizophrenia, first given in 1962. He blessed me and went quietly to his execution believing he had cured me of cancer (I never had cancer), that he was God’s prophet, had written the new true bible, and would rise from the dead three days after his execution by the state of Florida.
Scott Panetti, also on Texas’ death row, has a nearly 40-year history of schizophrenia. At trial he exercised his “right” to act as his own attorney. He appeared in a ridiculous cowboy costume and requested subpoenas for John F. Kennedy and Jesus. Numerous doctors, over many hospitalizations, had diagnosed his bizarre delusions stemming from severe mental illness.
Also executed in Florida, John Ferguson, a man with a 50-year history of severe mental illness, had the delusion he would also rise from the dead after his lethal injection, to then fight alongside Jesus against communism.
Having worked on many cases such as these, and experiencing the reality of such executions, has forced me to take a step back to consider what such cases say about us as Americans. I am not alone in the conclusion I am left with. There is a growing consensus in the country, evidenced by legislation being considered in eight states – Arkansas, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia – that executing people with severe mental illness makes us crueler, not safer. The cruelty often extends to victims. Many cases I’ve worked on involved victims’ family members begging the government to not pursue death because their loved one’s killer was a beloved family member with severe untreated mental illness. These victims’ pleas and even their phone calls to prosecutors, went unanswered.
As a mental health professional who has studied and written extensively about the causes, treatment and nature of these illnesses, I strongly support efforts to immediately reform this area of the law. Severe mental illness, in this context, includes schizophrenia, traumatic brain injury, and post-traumatic stress disorder. These illnesses of the brain, when untreated, significantly affect a person’s ability to grasp what is real, make decisions, or understand the consequences of their actions. They are no-fault brain disorders not brought on by the sufferer, but by genetics and damage to the developing and adult brain (e.g., in many veterans who have fought for our country, or those severely abused as children). Often, because of a fragmented and underfunded mental health system, they cannot get the help they, and society, needs. Andre Thomas made a call turning himself in moments after the crime, begging for psychiatric help. He went to the hospital twice in the month before the crime because he “couldn’t stop the voices” – he never received the treatment that arguably would have saved lives.
When I talk about my work people commonly say, “don’t the ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ laws protect people with severe mental illness?” The answer is no. The overwhelming majority of mentally ill people do not qualify, under the law, as “insane.”
What I, along with many professional mental health organizations, and the American Bar Association, am advocating for is a simple expansion of our laws that already protect people with other brain disorders from facing execution. Over the past twenty years I have witnessed a sea change of public opinion, and that of victim-families, pointing to a new moral imperative: We should not be executing persons with severe mental illnesses. These are among our most vulnerable citizens, people with severe brain disorders that, when treated, are no more violent than the general population. The time has come for our laws to reflect the science, increased public awareness about these illnesses, and this evolving standard of decency so that persons with severe mental illnesses are exempt from ever facing the death penalty.
Dr. Xavier Amador, Ph.D., is a university professor, scientist and clinical psychologist who has served as an expert on over 70 death penalty cases in state, federal and military courts.