Texas Tests Limits of Death Penalty With Mentally Ill Man on Death Row
"[The] applicant is clearly 'crazy,' but he is also 'sane' under Texas law."
By Brant Bingamon, Fri., March 24, 2023
Content warning: self-harm, suicide, violence
Maurie Levin, the attorney representing death row inmate Andre Thomas, talked about what it's like trying to communicate with her client. "There is nothing that is linear about Andre's thinking," Levin said. "He lives in an alternate world and there's no way to make rational sense of his understanding of what happened, or is happening. It makes no sense to me. It would make no sense to any of us."
Thomas, 39 years old, is without a doubt one of the most mentally ill people ever sent to Texas' death row. During a psychotic break in his hometown of Sherman in 2004, he murdered his estranged wife, Laura Boren, their 4-year-old son, Andre Jr., and Boren's 1-year-old daughter, Leyha Hughes, telling authorities he'd done so on orders from God. Reading a Bible in jail in the days following the murders, he plucked out his right eye. In 2008, three years after being sentenced to death, he plucked out his remaining eye – and ate it – to keep the government from seeing his thoughts.
Since blinding himself, Thomas has been held at the Wayne Scott Unit, a prison southwest of Houston that houses the state's most mentally ill inmates. He continues to hear voices and see visions. Levin has records showing that within the last six months, Thomas has told prison workers that he has a "superhuman mind," that he sees images of the "Godhead" and pyramids, and that he is "one with the mind of God." After he tried to cut his neck with a sharpened spoon last year, a prison doctor reaffirmed Thomas' longtime diagnosis of schizophrenia.
Texas prison officials know that Thomas is insane. After all, they hold him in a psychiatric facility and feed him antipsychotics. However, they will kill Thomas if they're allowed to; until several weeks ago, he was scheduled for execution on April 5. The execution has been postponed for at least three months to allow Levin to prepare arguments showing that Thomas has no idea why he is to be executed – in other words, that killing him would violate the law. But the law is a mutable thing. It is what the courts say it is. Texas has executed many mentally ill people. As ill as Thomas is, there's no guarantee he won't be next.
Voices, Visions, and Murder
Thomas was born in 1983 to a family riddled with mental illness. He was the youngest of six sons and grew up very poor. Often, the children had no parental supervision. Sometimes they had no running water and electricity.
Thomas began drinking at the age of 10, with his parents' encouragement. He also began hearing voices and made the first of what would be many suicide attempts. Another of these came at age 13, when his mother said she wished she'd aborted him. Thomas' father described it: "He went to my sink and got a butcher knife and began sawing on his wrist. I told him, 'Hell, if you want to kill yourself go out on the freeway and jump in front of a 18-wheeler.' He continued to cry and saw on his arm, so I knew he was serious. So I told him he needed to make long cuts down his arm so it would split open if he really wanted to kill himself."
At 15, Thomas began a relationship with a white girl, Laura Boren, who was the same age; they had a son by age 16. Thomas got a GED and took a job. On his 18th birthday he and Boren married. They separated within a year.
By then, the voices in Thomas' head had become persistent and hectoring. At times, they drove him to tears. He became obsessed with the Book of Revelations and the dollar bill, which he believed contained a code explaining the meaning of life. He knew something wasn't right and told friends and family he needed help.
Three weeks before his crime, a friend took Thomas to a mental health clinic. "Life is too much for me and I want to die right now," he told the staff. They advised him to go to the emergency room. Two days before the crime, Thomas stabbed himself in the chest and his mother took him to the hospital. The doctor who examined him described Thomas as paranoid, hallucinating, and suicidal but left him alone while he completed an Emergency Detention Order. Thomas walked out.
The next morning Thomas carried three knives to Laura Boren's trailer. With one, he killed Boren, convinced she was Jezebel, the wife of Satan. Using a second knife to keep the blood of the victims separate, he killed Andre Jr., believing he was the Antichrist. Thomas used the last knife to kill Boren's 1-year-old daughter Leyha, believing she was a demon. He cut the hearts out of the children and attempted to cut out Boren's heart. He then stabbed himself in the chest and lay next to Boren, expecting to die.
When he didn't, he stuffed the hearts in his pocket and confessed the murders to Sherman law enforcement, saying God had commanded them. As he sat in jail, Thomas read a Bible passage, Matthew 5:29, where Jesus preaches, "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out." Using his fingers, Thomas pried out his right eyeball. He was taken to a psychiatric prison, where he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and given large doses of antipsychotics. After 47 days he was pronounced sane enough to be tried for capital murder.
Thomas' court-appointed attorneys argued at the ensuing trial that he was innocent by reason of insanity. They did not, however, argue that he was incompetent to stand trial in the first place. Accordingly, the court did not decide whether he was sane enough to stand trial; in fact, no court has ever ruled on whether he is sane.
The Grayson County prosecutors conceded that Thomas was psychotic at the time of the murders but said he had caused his psychosis by drinking alcohol and cough medicine. They dismissed the gouging out of his eye as an impulsive act. After Thomas was found guilty by the all-white jury, his attorneys failed to fully describe his upbringing and history of mental illness during the sentencing portion of the trial.
"The jury was not given the information that would have helped them to see Mr. Thomas' struggles or humanity," Levin later said. "Without anything close to a full picture of Mr. Thomas' mental illness and the neglect and abuse that exacerbated it – which would likely have led the jury to see Mr. Thomas as deserving of compassion – the jury sentenced him to death."
Crazy but Sane
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Thomas' appeal of his death sentence in 2008, as they do in the vast majority of capital appeals brought before them. "This is a sad case," Judge Cathy Cochran wrote, while claiming, rather surprisingly, that "reasonable people might well differ on the questions of whether [he] was sane at the time he committed these murders or competent at the time he was tried." The judge said these crucial questions had been "appropriately addressed" at the trial. One sentence from the ruling stood out: "[The] applicant is clearly 'crazy,'" Cochran wrote, "but he is also 'sane' under Texas law."
Cochran could make that statement because Texas and the United States have never defined insanity for purposes of capital punishment. The only guidance on the matter comes from the 1986 Supreme Court decision in Ford v. Wainwright, which merely requires that those who are executed understand why they are being killed. Texas has killed many mentally ill prisoners since the Ford decision, and it continues to do so. Last year, the state killed Tracy Beatty, diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. Just two weeks ago, it killed Gary Green, also diagnosed with schizophrenia.
One month after Cochran wrote that Thomas was crazy but sane, Thomas plucked out his remaining eyeball and ate it. He was taken to the Wayne Scott Unit. During 14 years of solitary confinement there, he has been fed daily doses of benztropine, olanzapine, and other drugs. But he continues to hear voices and see visions. "His delusions have not changed," Levin said. "He has very consistent kinds of hallucinations. He has consistently heard voices that often tell him the same thing. He certainly hasn't gotten any better."
Levin has represented Thomas since he entered Wayne Scott and has filed a variety of appeals with state and federal courts in that time. In 2022, the Supreme Court declined to consider her most recent argument demonstrating racism at Thomas' trial. Shortly afterward, the Grayson County district attorney's office asked that Texas proceed with Thomas' execution. It was set for April 5.
On March 7, a district court in Grayson County postponed the execution to allow Levin time to make the argument that has been staring Texas officials in the face all along – that Thomas is incompetent for execution by reason of insanity. Levin said she will probably present her case to the court in June.
Clemency and Decency
Proving that a defendant is incompetent for execution is difficult. So Levin has also presented a clemency petition to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, asking that they recommend to Gov. Greg Abbott that he commute Thomas' sentence to life in prison. Seventy-seven of the nation's leading mental health professionals have signed on to the petition; so have 100 Texas faith leaders, representing many faiths and denominations.
Greg Hansch, executive director of the Texas chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, is one of those asking Abbott to spare Thomas' life. "We strongly believe that capital punishment should be taken off the table for [people with] severe mental illnesses," Hansch said. "We've done so for juveniles, we've done so for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and it's time that we bring Texas law into alignment with the protections that have been put in place for other vulnerable populations."
Hansch is supporting Texas House Bill 727, which would exempt people convicted of a capital crime from the death penalty if they suffered from psychosis due to schizophrenia or other severe mental illness at the time of their offense. But if HB 727 passes, it will not be retroactive, so it would not affect Thomas.
The Rev. Jaime Kowlessar, senior pastor of Dallas City Temple, is also asking that Abbott commute Thomas' sentence. It's a long shot, but he is urging the governor, who professes to be a Catholic, to read the Bible story contained in Mark 5. In it, a man possessed by demons falls at the feet of Jesus and begs for mercy. Jesus heals the man by exorcising his demons. "When Jesus met this young man, his first word wasn't to execute him," Kowlessar said. "It was to have compassion and mercy."
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