Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Eyes Have It

During my freshman year at Boston University, I was engaged to a girl from just outside of Houston. It didn't work out in the end, but it was a good relationship, and so I've tended to refrain from joining in on the jokes people like to make about Texans, particularly as pertains to their creative (i.e., absent) approach toward the rights of criminal defendants. But even I can't resist taking some jabs at the Texas Supreme Court for this decision.

To summarize: Andre Thomas killed his wife, 4-year old son, and 13-month-old niece. He then (and I honestly can't phrase this better than the article did)
walked into the Sherman Police Department and told a dispatcher he had murdered the three, then told officers he put his victims’ hearts in his pocket, left their apartment, took them home, put the organs in a plastic bag and threw them in the trash. He said G-d had told him to commit the killings.
This would probably be enough to give anyone pause, but it gets better (or worse, depending on how you look at it). Five days after that, while sitting in the jail awaiting trial, he removed and ate his right eye. Of course, Thomas' defense attorneys argued insanity, and the prosecutors argued that it was a ploy; their theory of prosecution basically broke down to, "He was high as a kite when he committed the crime, and voluntary intoxication negates a claim of insanity." The judge gave the jury instructions that heavily emphasized voluntary intoxication, and the jury convicted him and sentenced him to an execution. The case was appealed both because the instruction should never have been given because it suggested his drug and alcohol use and not insanity were responsible for his actions, and because Thomas' trial counsel was ineffective in not preventing that instruction from being given in the first place. The appeal was destined to be like the hundreds of thousands of other appeals that go through the system every year, but then Thomas made the news again this past December when -- sitting on death row at the time -- Thomas plucked out his other eye and ate it. So, to recap: Thomas has removed and eaten both of his eyes while awaiting an appeal on a conviction under the theory that his actions were due to his drug use and not some mental disease or defect.

But, apparently, having a little "eyeball marinara" (and I wish I could take credit for that joke, but that's all Gideon) isn't enough to be crazy in Texas. Or, rather, it is, but just not under Texas law, according to the 14-page opinion handed down by the Texas Supreme Court a few days ago. The Court upheld Thomas' conviction, arguing -- and I really can't believe they actually wrote this -- that Thomas "is clearly ‘crazy,’ but he is also ‘sane’ under Texas law"
“There was ample evidence to reject an insanity defense and support a jury finding that (Thomas) knew that his conduct was wrong at the time he murdered his wife and the children,” Cochran wrote. “There was also evidence that (Thomas) did not know his conduct was wrong at the time. This was a quintessential fact issue for the jury to decide, and it did so.”
First things first: my objection is not aimed at the Grayson County prosecutors, though I probably could cast some scorn their way for actually getting up there with a straight face and arguing that the eyeball removal/eating thing was some kind of ploy to avoid prosecution. I grant you that having one eye and being in a mental institution for life is still better than lethal injection (though I'm not sure by how much) but anyone who removes and eats even one of their own eyes is clearly not fit to stand trial, drugs or no drugs. Still, they were doing their job, and the system is supposed to be the check on the State to keep them from running too fast or going too far. Also, in case anyone doubted the sincerity of Thomas' mental illness, he has been formally diagnosed with schizophrenia. He suffers from delusions and altered reality and hears voices. He reportedly believed that his family was possessed by the devil, and that killing them was saving the world from evil. This isn't some defense argument, mind you; this has been independently verified by examining doctors. I've heard conflicting reports as to whether the State knew of this for certain prior to the completion of the original trial, but let's give them the benefit of the doubt and say that they didn't.

The Texas Supreme Court, however, knew about all this well in advance of their decision, and by the time they decided this appeal they also knew that Thomas had removed and eaten his other eye as well. So how on earth do they rule in this fashion? How exactly can someone be "clearly crazy" while also being sane under Texas law? Even if Thomas had been somehow medicated sufficiently to be calm in court, his eyeless state should be a psychic link to his utter insanity. I've sat with clients that are far less mentally unstable than Thomas as they've been deemed incompetent to stand trial. I know of no drug high that would last 5 full days after the last dose, which was the time gap between Thomas' arrest and his first eyeball snack, so there's really no logic behind finding Thomas to be sane OR competent. Furthermore, the fact that "voluntary intoxication" ultimately carried the day for the Supreme Court is a blatant shirking of their responsibilities. Even if you hold that he was sane around the time of the incident -- because if he was never sane around that time, the ball game is over -- and ignore the idea that the drugs were a form of self-medication (a point this blog does a far better job of arguing than I ever could), you have to appreciate the irony of this decision coming down within 10 days of the DVD release of Milk, which chronicles the life of a gay California politician who was assassinated by Dan White, a man who was ultimately acquitted for his actions based on -- wait for it -- the Twinkie Defense. So if you're high on legal substances, it's OK to murder someone, but don't you dare do it when you're high on illegal ones or else you'll be executed.

Bottom line: the Texas Supreme Court could have overturned the conviction, and the Court should have overturned the conviction. The fact that they didn't -- and that they rationalized it in such a ridiculous way -- feels like a slap in the face to the criminal justice system as a whole, and I sincerely hope this stance on the insanity defense isn't echoed by other state supreme courts in the future.


  1. Andrew: The Texas Supreme Court didn't because it couldn't. The Supreme Court does not have cr9iminal jurisdiction.

  2. I'm not sure if that's true or not; it seems odd to think that they'd accept the case on review only to say that they can't accept the case because they don't have jurisdiction. All that being said, however, they did make a decision on the case, and while I know that appellate courts can't technically consider new facts, they could have ended up doing so by saying (in a much more eloquent format than the paraphrasing I am about to do):

    "The law of insanity here is X. We understand that the jury was presented with two sides, and chose to rule him as sane. However, subsequent events have even further illustrated why they unfortunately made the wrong decision. We believe in the power of the jury system, but we believe even more in the justice of the legal system, and while the acts Mr. Thomas committed were gruesome and tragic, it seems clear to us that justice has not been done. As such, we must reverse and remand this for a new trial in which this subsequent evidence must be presented."

    You don't have to let him walk free by any means, but neither must you sentence a truly insane man to die, not when the system has said that insanity negates intent.