Sita Diehl, Director of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) TN and a member of the Tennessee Committee to Study the Administration of the Death Penalty, recently proposed that the Committee recommend legislation exempting people suffering with severe mental illness at the time of their crimes from the death sentence. This recommendation still allows for a guilty verdict and a sentence of life without parole, but it takes death off the table for a population of people who, like those with mental retardation, are less culpable for their crimes because of their diminished capacity.
Unfortunately, the Committee chose to recommend that this issue be studied further rather than take decisive action now. During the Committee’s discussion, the prosecutors on the Committee stated that the current system has mechanisms in place for dealing with people who have severe mental illness and that this recommendation was only creating more bureaucracy and more potential litigation. The prosecutors’ position prevailed.
On Friday of last week, I read a story out of Texas that demonstrates the complete lack of substance to the argument that the current system is effective in dealing with those with severe mental illness. The case is that of Andre Thomas, 25, who was convicted in 2004 for the slayings of his estranged wife, their young son, and her 13-month-old daughter, in a gruesome stabbing in which Thomas cut out the victims’ hearts, stabbed himself, and then walked into the Sherman, TX, police station to report what he had done.
While at the Grayson County jail in Sherman, Thomas plucked out his right eye before his trial in 2004. A judge subsequently ruled that Thomas was competent to stand trial, and he received the death sentence.
On December 9, 2008, a death row officer in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice found Thomas in his cell with blood all over his face and took him to the infirmary where it was determined that he had pulled his remaining eye out and ingested it. He was treated at East Texas Medical Center in Tyler and transferred to the prison psychiatric facility.
“He will finally be able to receive the mental health care that we had wanted and begged for from day 1,” stated his attorney Bobbie Peterson-Cate. So much for competency.
How a supposedly rational person, such as the judge in this case, can witness a man in his/her courtroom who is so ill that he cut the heart out of his own child and plucked out his own eye and then find that man competent to stand trial and receive a death sentence is beyond my ability to understand. What has happened to us as a society when it takes a man pulling his only remaining eye from his own head and eating it to decide he might need some psychiatric help?
This case demonstrates just how woefully inadequate the current system is in determining when someone is suffering from severe mental illness and how best to address the issue. Or even worse, this case demonstrates that we, as a society, simply do not have the will to address the real problems but instead prefer to rid ourselves of such people. Certainly, this is an extreme case which makes it all the more shocking that this very sick man got no help.
I hope that we in Tennessee can take an honest look at our current system and have the humanity and decency to at least, identify those individuals who are the most ill and then treat them, not kill them. Currently, Tennessee has people who suffer with severe mental illness on our death row. What is it going to take for us to do the right thing and exempt these very sick people from the death penalty?
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