Letter From Death Row: It’s Time to Stop Executing the Insane

A condemned Texas inmate reflects on the blind justice of putting to death a schizophrenic who has plucked out his own eyes.

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Life on Death Row provides very few comforts, other than ample time to think about the fatal flaws of the justice system. (Photo: Richard Carson/Reuters)

Rob Will is an inmate living on Death Row in Texas.

Have you ever heard the screams of the insane? It is something you will never forget; it’s a soul disturbing sound and sometimes it can last for hours and hours, day after day after day. It’s past 2 a.m., and old crazy Bill is still screaming, his cries echoing off the walls and coursing through the cellblock like a small band of maniacal poltergeists toppling over one another in a frantic search for something unattainable.

Is this why so many of the insane in prison rant and scream so maniacally and so very often? Amid the twisted and tumultuous fog of their schizophrenic mind, is a part of their damaged psyche reaching out for help, for comfort, for balance, for peace?

Old Bill has been at it for hours tonight; he’s been on a slow downward descent falling deeper into his madness since he started to go blind. Now he is in the depths of the pit, almost completely blind, only able to distinguish shadows—and the shadows have become his tormentors and demons. Can you imagine being blind in prison? Horrible.

In mentioning blindness, I can’t help but think of Andre Thomas. They just brought him back from the prison for the insane—the Jester 3 psychiatric unit—and he still doesn’t have any eyes. (When they want to execute someone who is severely schizophrenic—too schizophrenic to be on the Death Row unit—they will bring him back here once his appeals are exhausted. It is hard to argue that a person is mentally competent when they are committed to the psych unit.)

I didn’t expect Andre Thomas to have eyes, but the prison rumor mill was running wild: One guy said the psych unit—where Andre has been housed for years, since he ripped out his remaining eye—gave him glass eyes. Another said that because so much attention had been given to Andre’s situation, the prison gave him new eye transplants complete with electrode implants, micro video cameras and microprocessors. But earlier today I heard that, in fact, Andre still has no eyes.

He ripped the first one out after he murdered his family in a fit of delusional religious fervor. A few years after arriving on Death Row, Andre tore out his other eye. He ate it while screaming at officers, in a rage of rapture and pain, that now they wouldn’t be able to steal his thoughts and project imagines into his mind.

Since all of Andre’s appeals have been exhausted, he is currently awaiting an execution date. The courts have ruled that yes he is crazy, just not crazy enough to be Ford vs. Wainwright qualified.

Later, Andre sadly said that it didn’t work and he only wished that he could find a way to eat his brain.

Andre had a long history of mental illness before the crime happened. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic while in jail awaiting trial, but the psychiatrists who diagnosed him decided to change their diagnosis four months later. Schizophrenia does not have an on and off switch that the schizophrenic can utilize at will, but pressure from prosecutors obviously put one in the backs of the “experts” who evaluated Andre.

In 1986, the Supreme Court of the United States made a landmark ruling in Ford vs. Wainwright that was meant to prevent the execution of the insane. The basic theory behind the ruling is this: If a person is schizophrenic, then they obviously are not consciously aware of their actions and therefore cannot be held fully responsible for those actions and thus be sentenced to death (in the case of capital murder).

Since Ford vs. Wainwright, however, various lower courts across the nation have interpreted the ruling differently. Some have interpreted it rather liberally; others have made Ford vs. Wainwright rulings that quite frankly say that if a person is sane enough to carry out the act of murder, then he or she simply cannot be insane.

Since all of Andre’s appeals have been exhausted, he is currently awaiting an execution date. The courts have ruled that yes he is crazy, just not crazy enough to be Ford vs. Wainwright qualified. (I do not know the current status of crazy old Bill’s case—and, yes, he is still wailing away). Sometimes these situations are extremely hard for me to process. And what I mean is this: Andre committed shockingly horrific murders, crimes that I cannot even bring myself to describe. On one hand, yes, he is schizophrenic and this lessens his moral culpability, but he did indeed commit unfathomably vicious murders, murders that could only be committed by someone very divorced from humanity. And these murders are a result of his extreme dissociation of the psyche. Andre is one of the types of schizophrenics who go “in and out,” and one ever knows when he will be in or very, very out.

Should he ever be released into society? No. Should Andre be executed? Most certainly not—and this is a position that most social scientists would agree with, although many people would not. Believe me when I tell you that Andre lives in a world, his own alternate reality, where God and the Devil and angels and demons speak to him and demand that he carry out their wishes. He is clearly Ford vs. Wainwright qualified.

I’m reminded of H. G. Wells’s short story “The Country of the Blind.”

H. G. Wells was really quite brilliant. His stories are filled with metaphor and allegory. In “The Country of the Blind,” a mountaineer explorer, Nunez, comes across this fabled country, which is a small village in the Andean mountains that has been cut off from civilization for centuries. All of its inhabitants are completely physically blind from birth. When Nunez tries to explain the wonders of sight to the villagers, they call him a fool and a madman. Nothing he does or says can change their perception.

In front of the U.S Department of Justice building in Washington, D.C. there is a statue of Lady Justice, a symbol of the purity and righteousness of the American Judicial System. She holds a scale and wears a blindfold, an allusion to the maxim that “justice is blind”—meaning that those involved in the criminal justice system, specifically prosecutors and judges, are supposed to enforce the law in an unbiased manner. They are supposed to be “blind” to any bias and prejudice.

Let’s hope the courts will indeed be blind in this manner—and not in the manner of the citizens of H. G. Wells’s “The Country of the Blind”— and reduce Andre’s sentence to life in prison. Not for him, but in order to ensure that fairness prevails in our judicial system. And, yes, crazy old Bill is still… wailing and screaming…

Note: They just shipped Andre back to the psych unit. Officers didn’t want to work on the pod he was on; they said his presence is just far too disturbing.

Do you feel there is ever justification in executing a schizophrenic? Explain your yes or no view in COMMENTS.

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