Friday, January 09, 2009

Some judge somewhere declared this guy competent to stand trial

Andre Thomas, condemned to death row after he killed his wife and children and carved their hearts out, in 2004, then plucked out his own eye while he was awaiting his own capital murder trial. Even so, the judge declared him competent and this fall the Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed his death sentence. But before the state could carry it out, while alone in his cell, last month Thomas plucked out the other eye and, apparently, ate it - I kid you not!

I've known for some time that the standards for both competency to stand trial and competency to be executed can be shockingly low, though I've never completely understood the ins and outs of what goes into either determination. Indeed, I know so little about the legal and psychological debates swirling around such issues I hardly know where to begin analyzing such an astonishing story. I'd like to hear more knowledgeable folks - Dr. Lucy Puryear comes to mind - to understand how somebody like this could ever be deemed competent to stand trial in the first place.

RELATED: See this revealing string from the prosecutors' association user forum in which we find speculation that Thomas' self-mutiliation and cannibalism are part of a ruse to avoid the death penalty: "is he truly a whack job, or has he discovered a new dodge?" asks one forum participant. We're treated to a "tastes like chicken" joke, while another poster suggested Thomas was looking for a missing cell phone, to which Williamson County DA John Bradley replied, "Then I would agree he is insane. Because everyone knows you keep those in your rectum." Classy stuff, that.

MORE: For a more thoughtful discussion of the case, including whether Thomas might qualify for the legally anachronistic "wild beast" defense, see RickG's post at the Lone Star Times and the excellent comments in response.


Texpat said...

Grits, Big Jolly posted a link to this story and commenter Darren10 has done a little research. It appears the judge sent this man to a mental hospital just long enough to get him drugged up enough to stand trial.

"'He is (now) in the Jester Unit where he will finally be able to receive the mental health care that we had wanted and begged for from day 1,' Peterson-Cate said when asked to comment on Thomas’ most recent attempt to harm himself.When asked if she knew why Thomas would do such a thing to himself a second time, Peterson-Cate said, “He is insane and mentally ill. It is exactly the same reason he pulled out the last one.”Peterson-Cate and R.J. Hagood argued that Thomas’ mental illness was the mitigating element that caused him to kill and mutilate his three victims. Thomas was sent to a state mental hospital after he pulled out his eye at the Grayson County Jail and ruled to be insane. He was medicated and returned to Grayson County. Retired Judge James Fry then judged Thomas competent to stand trial.Thomas confessed to those crimes after walking into the Sherman Police Department on the day of the killings. Testimony at the trial revealed that Thomas thought the three were possessed by the devil and he had orders from God to kill them."

I think this whole thing reeks and is an outrage. The judge, the prosecution and the defense should all be disbarred.

Anonymous said...

I'm sure some psychiatrist testified that he was competent. Psychiatry should not be given as much weight as it is in court. It is based on psychology which is considered a pseudo-science...therefore, psychiatiry is pseudo-medicine.. Remember this is the profession that brought us the pre-frontal lobotomy and abused shock treatments in the 70's. Psychiatrist should be relied on very little in criminal cases. You can have a couple of psychiatrist who may say someone is sane and a couple of others may say the same person is insane. It's just opinion based on very little actual science and too often they go with whichever side hired them. I know of a case where a person was clearly delusional at the time a murder was ocmmitted. Two psychiatrist (hired by the defense) said she was insane and two said she was sane (hired by the prosecution). This person had such an extensive history of psychosis and mental illness it is totally unreasonable for anyone to conclude she was sane. The prosecutions psychiatrist were biased from the beginning and only considered information that confirmed the finding they were looking for. Defense attorneys really should start challenging the validity of psychiatry as expert testimony. The so called science of psychiatry probably wouldn't hold up to a serious examination of it's credibility.

Anonymous said...

Doctor Peter Breggin said it very well: "The mad are inarticulate poets, psychiatrist are articulate know-nothings".

Anonymous said...

Anon at 6:11, get thee to the nearest Scientology church, because they'd love to have you.

Pointing out failures of earlier mental health practices as proof of the illegitimacy of the whole discipline is like saying all of evolutionary theory, thus much of biology, is "wrong" because a researcher in the 1800s believed giraffes' long necks resulted from repeated generations of giraffes stretching their own necks to reach leaves, then passing that trait down to their offspring.

Or maybe you think evolution is a pseudo-science too.

Anonymous said...

Take a basic psyhology course and one of the first things you will learn is that psychology is considered a pseudo-science. I didn't make that up, it's a fact.

A good example of how unreliable psychiatry is in criminal cases is the Andrea Yates case. Dr. Dietz determined her to be sane based on the fact that he believed she had watched an episode of Law and Order (an episode which didn't actually exist). If psychiatry is so reliable don't you think he could have found more to base his opinion on than the fact she had allegedly watched a TV show. Come on.

By the way, anon 8:03, I can point to a lot more than past failures of psychology. Look at what these quacks are doing with many of these medications. I used to work with kids in the foster care system. It should be criminal what has been done to some of these kids by these quacks over medicating them. They prescribe one drug. It causes side effects. Instead of acknowledging that it's a drug side effect they determine the child is getting worse and prescribe two or three more. Many of these drugs cause long term and sometimes permanent side effects. They never tell their patients that. If you look at the studies on most of these drugs they don't even work. Less than 1/3 of people respond to anti-depressants but that is still the only way most psychiatrist know to treat it. I've seen psychiatrist that are totally ignorant of other non-drug treatments that are safe and more effective.

I could go on and on about this. Let's just say, anon 8:03, I've seen enough to know what I'm talking about. Psychiatric testimony in a courtroom is probably less reliable than the eyewitness identifications that grits has written about.

Anonymous said...

Anon, you obviously don't understand science or basic logical reasoning if you think you're refuting a field of science by pointing out a mistake made by a practitioner. You're describing the poor judgment of a person, not anything inherently wrong with the field of study. Try refuting clinical methods or fundamental bases of psychiatry, rather than attacking people who may apply it in a faulty manner. Is all of reconstructive surgery quackery because Michael Jackson looks the way he does?

Psychologists do not prescribe medicine. Psychiatrists do. There's a difference. A psychiatrist completes medical school and is more capable than a psychologist would be of treating someone who has a serious mental illness like bipolar or schizophrenia.

For someone who knows everything "wrong" with mental health care, you sure don't know much about it to begin with.

Another thing, if what you are saying is true, then what follows from the terrible case Grits described? Not only does an insane man kill others, harm himself, and then go to trial, BUT, if the mental health field is bunk, he may as well be left in a room to rot, receiving nothing but food, water, and maybe some Muzak piped in over the speaker system. The guy can't be helped, right, seeing as mental health practitioners are charlatans? If you consider them too worthless to testify as experts at trial, you have just argued that they're too worthless to help our offenders or divert the mentally ill from offending.

Thanks for your contribution.

Anonymous said...

If a defendant is competent to stand trial, that does not mean that he is sane. Legal competency only requires that he knows what his lawyer, the prosecutor and the judge do in court and that he faces negative consequences for his actions. You do not need to be sane, or educated or intelligent to met this standard. That is why we have Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity and Guilty but Insane verdicts. If only sane people were tried for their crimes, such verdicts would be unnecessary and they would not be available to the trier of fact. Mentally ill people can still be oriented to their surroundings and know what's going on.

Anonymous said...

I would disagree with your assertion that pscychiatrist are more qualified than psychologists. Psychologists spend most of their graduate years studying behavior and mental illness whereas psychiatrist spend most of their schooling studying biology and medicine. From what I've read most psychiatrist actually spend very little time studying psychology. I've found that psychologist are usually much more knowledgeable about mental illness whereas if a psychiatrist can't write a prescription they don't know what to do.

As far as clinical methods...what do you think about a "field of study" that pushes treatment methods that many studies show are no more effective than placebos? Don't you think that indicates a problem with the "field of study". Ignoring the harmful effects of these treatments also indicates a problem with this "field of study". I once had a conversation with the director of one of the state hospitals. He was a psychologist. I said that I though in 20 years or so we would look back in horror at what we have done to people with some of these medications. He agreed.

A good example of the point I'm trying to make is the issue of predicting "future dangerousness". This is when a so called scientific expert (usually a psychologist or psychiatrist) tells a jury that a person should get the death penalty because of their "future dangerousness". There are psychologist and psychiatrist that have specialized in providing this type of so called expert testimony. This ability to predict "future dangerousness" is being discreditied. Here's a quote from an article by the Texas Defender Service: "We reviewed 155 cases in which prosecutors used experts to predict a defendant’s
future dangerousness. These experts were wrong 95% of the time." These are the same so called experts who are testifying in competency issues and insanity cases. Don't you see a problem with this "field of study" being presented as scientific fact to juries? Here's another quote from the same article: "One scholar, critiquing the admission of this unreliable evidence,
noted: “One suspects that the Justices would not choose a neurosurgeon
on such a basis, nor even a podiatrist.”221 Texas allows the life or death
decision to turn on evidence much less reliable than the flip of a coin." Evidence much less reliable than the flip of a coin. I would say that also applies to so called expert testimony about competency and insanity. After all it's the same experts who dare to present their unreliable opinions with scientific certainty to juries that are doing the same things with regards to competence and insanity.

As far as the case in question....I guess my suggestion would be to use our own common sense instead of relying on so called experts. In the case we are talking about you don't need to be a psychiatrist or psychologist to determine there is probably a competence issue. But, when you put a psychologist or psychiatrist on the stand who says with scientific certainty that the guy is competent, well who are we or the judge for that matter, to say different.

By the way here is the link to the article I referenced if you'd like to check it out:

And, yes I do think it's possible to help mentally ill people like the man in question. I just don't think psychiatry is doing much to help these kind of people.

Anonymous said...

This case is one of many that argues for a change in the insanity statute in Texas. This guy was clearly insane. Here is a link to a good article on the subject written by a law professor at Texas Tech.

Somehow, in these insanity cases we need to get away from our desire for revenge and punishment. When a person is delusional, as this man clearly was, they are functioning in a different world. The delusion is their reality. They make decisions and judgments based on what they believe to be real. A person who is truly delusional at the time may think that they are doing the right thing even if they kill someone. These delusional states come and go so when asked later they will admit that they know what they did was legally wrong but at the time of the act that concept has no meaning to them. We need to get out of the vengeance mindset and realize that justice isn't always about punishment. These people need treatment. Often they end up in prison and do not get adequate treatment for their mental illness. These people are victims of their illness. THe only purpose served by putting them in prison is to satisfy our feeling that we need vengeance. Yes, they should be locked up for their safety and the safety of others but it needs to be about treatment, not vengeance.

Unfortunately, there are many other people in prison who were insane at the time they committed an offense. Our statute is just so poorly written it can be difficult to prove.

Anonymous said...

I think medicating a person into a state of "competence" to prove them guilty of a crime committed when they were delusional is ironic. But what about situations where the person refused to take their medication, even if they knew it could end with disastrous results?

Sadly, a lot of these situations aren't about a bad or willfully negligent person choosing to avoid medication or choosing to hurt people. It's about mentally unstable people who can't afford consistent, high quality care, and about people who are in families or communities that simply can't control the person's behavior or force them to comply with treatment that keeps them stable. We don't have enough safe, quality mental health facilities for people who are dangers to themselves and others, so their families try to keep them out of trouble, or they become homeless, etc. . .

Something else that complicates the issue is that a lot of mentally ill people abuse drugs or abuse alcohol, and people around them don't understand that mental illness is the root of the behavior. Their odd actions and moods are attributed only to their drug use, because people don't know any better. If families could be assured a low-cost, safe, clean, humane treatment center would take good care of their mentally ill, hard to handle loved ones, I'm sure many people would accept the offer. As it stands, there's a short supply of those in Texas.

Anonymous said...

Please don't forget the kids in this positive development. You do great work Mr. Grits.

editor said...

Grits, obviously there is a great deal of confusion on this issue. The opinion that psychiatry and psychology are pseudosciences is a fallacious argument. However, this does not matter because the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure allows for both expert psychiatrists and psychologists to render competency and insanity opinions. Texas does not have a "guilty but insane" provision as suggested by one commenter. If Thomas were determined incompetent to stand trial (there seems to be some discrepency) he would be committed to a state hospital (assumedly, Vernon in this case) for a period until he becomes competent. Most people found incompetent to stand trial return competent, like 95%. Competency is a separate issue than insanity. Competency was fairly well described in an earlier post, knowing what the judge does, your attorney does, being able to assist your attorney on your case, and not acting out in court, etc.

TEXPAT wrote, "Thomas was sent to a state mental hospital after he pulled out his eye at the Grayson County Jail and ruled to be insane." Ruled to be insane? Was he found not guilty by reason of insanity then the state appealed and subsequently found guilty? I am not understanding, did you mean to say, "ruled to be incompetent"?

Although expert opinions are presented, insanity is determined by a judge or jury, and in capital cases, by a jury only. The jury would have been offered three choices: guilty, not guilty, and not guilty by reason of insanity. So, in Mr. Thomas' case, he may have had numerous experts testify that he was insane, but it is the jury, those 12 people from Grayson County who found him guilty.

Just to note, mental illness and/or mental retardation does not equal incompetence or insanity. Basically in Texas, insanity means the person did not "know" that the act was "wrong." However, the jury determines this without the benefit of a legal definition of "know" and "wrong." These are abstract terms, difficult to comprehend by concrete thinkers, especially those that suggest that psychiatry and psychology are pseudosciences.

sunray's wench said...

These are all perfectly fine words and reasonable aguments. However, does it really take that many words to ask
Why is this man not in a mental health institution?

Are Texans so embarrassed by mental health issues to the point that they refuse to acknowledge them, decide the person is just being difficult, and prefer to put them in prison seeing as that appears to be their only answer to any social problem?

editor said...

Sunray's Wench,
The statement that he belongs in a mental institution is an easy generalization to make, but (assuming you are not satisfied with the current methods) who should determine this? How will it be determined? How would you determine how long he should be there? How would you determine what treatment facility is best? Should retributive factors be considered? If you operationalize your generalized statement, I think you will find it is a complicated matter. But the bigger question is, if you are dissatisfied with the system, what are you doing to change it? Several changes I would suggest are: allowing the jury to know the possible consequences of a NGRI verdict, defining "know" and "wrong," and, creating a plea of guilty but insane. Most MH advocates don't like this one, but I contend that juries are more likely to agree with this verdict. They get to find them guilty and the defendant gets the treatment they need.

FleaStiff said...

What possible relevancy is cannibalism or self-mutilation?
The only issue for competency to stand trial is does the defendant understand what a courtroom is, what the charges are and what the role of his lawyer is? If the defendant can aid in his own defense he is competent to stand trial irrespective of his dietary preferences or liklihood to repeat his actions.

Anonymous said...

The previous posters speak about putting him in state mental institution like you would be doing something to help him. Obviously people who have never spent any time in one.

I've spoken with people that were in one from jail because of competency issues. They prefer jail or prison.

The state mental hospitals are nothing more than a warehouse that provides medicine. How is that different than jail or prison?

Don't worry whether the psyc. sciences are psuedo or not because I assure you none are being practiced there.

sunray's wench said...

editor ~ I think I would like to know before we go any further down this road, was Thomas known to any psychiatric team before he committed the crime? Had he been prescribed anti-psychotic meds? Did he have a history of mental illness or was this just completely out of the blue? Had his family been asking for help for him and not got it?

I am not a mental health professional, but neither were the jury members.

You ask what I am doing about it if I am not happy with it? I am discussing it, openly, just like all the other bits of what Texas calls 'justice'. Not sweeping it under the carpet, or paying someone else to take it away, or pretending it's not there in the first place, or that it wont happen to me or anyone I know.

Texpat said...

RE: editor

You are correct about my terminology. I should have stated Judge Fry ruled on Thomas' "competency to stand trial".

By even the most rudimentary standards, the defendant had consistently demonstrated he was incapable of functioning in society and was a danger, not only to himself, but others. According to his brother, Thomas displayed alarming behavior before the murders, sought help at a local hospital (at least twice) and was rejected and was generally threatening to himself and others.

After committing heinous murders and mutilation, he is confined to the county jail where he gouges out his own eyeball. Thomas is so obviously insane, but is returned from a short stint in a mental facility and deemed competent to stand trial by Judge Fry. I can fully sympathize with the justifiable horror the people of Grayson County must have felt in the aftermath of these crimes, but how do we justify in Texas putting a man on trial for capital murder who is clearly incapable of defending himself and therefore, without the faculties to distinguish between right and wrong ?

The limitations of Texas criminal law, procedural inadequacies and its inherent idiosychrasies aside, few cases illustrate better the glaring immorality of our justice system regarding the mentally insane defendant.

I am most frustrated with a system wherein the judge, prosecutor and defending attorneys all seem oblivious (or callous or both) and fail to mount any attempts to have this man committed to an institution where, at least, he might not be able to remove his own body parts. If our legislators do not find this case to be grounds for renovating our criminal laws on the mentally insane and incompetent, then I honestly don't know if anything would.

Anonymous said...

Again, coming from someone who has actually spent time in a state mental hospital.

Given a choice between spending the rest of my life in one or being put to death...

Just in case any judges or prosecutors are listening:

PLEASE - Put me down and out of my miserey.

Anonymous said...

There is something drastically different between my dna (and that of Anon 11:58 PM, who said Please don't forget the kids in this positive development. You do great work Mr. Grits.1/09/2009 11:58:00 PM) and that of the rest of the posters here.

I'm all for humanity, and helping my fellow man, but when he kills his wife and kids by cutting their hearts out, I draw the line.

See, there are alot crazy people out there who know the difference between right and wrong. But they're just mean as hell. And so they kill their family, and then run from the police, and right there you know this guy (who may be as crazy as he can be) knows he shouldn't be killing his family.

And that is the difference between someone like this, who knew he was guilty, and Andrea Yates, who didn't know right from wrong.

Why doesn't this SOB do us all a favor and just kill himself.

Anonymous said...

I think the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about is that when you say "committed to an institution" there is no guarantee that this person is going to be removed from society permanently. I would like to see an equal concern about public safety. Some of these folks are not "fixable."

Anonymous said...

One of the worst things about this case is that the defense botched the competency issue at trial, as is apparent from the appellate opinion.

A fundamental problem in this area is that law school does not teach lawyers to handle mental health issues well, and lawyers remain ignorant of those issues in practice. The continuing hostility of the criminal courts to mental health issues is also heartbreaking - four years ago the legislature, after input from a taskforce of lawyers and mental health professionals, passed a new competency statute some aspects of which have simply been ignored. For example, the courts have not implemented the new and lower threshold for when a judge must spontaneously order an inquiry into a defendant's competence. One proposal to begin addressing these problems would be for all criminal lawyers (and judges!) to have mandatory mental health education before being allowed to practice in the criminal courts. Seriously. The critical role that legal practitioners should perform in ensuring the potentially mentally ill defendants are identified and appropriate action taken is simply not happening at present.

Texpat said...

Anonymous @ 09:40AM

I could not agree more. If the remedy is to fund a mandatory series of continuing education seminars for judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys, then I am all for it. It's one small step.

editor said...

Good idea requiring attorneys and judges to receive education. BTW, does anyone know for sure if Thomas' attorney sought the insanity defense?

Anonymous said...

The legal considerations for competency is pretty simple.

Can he tell the difference from right and wrong?

If he can, he is competent to stand trial.

Now to be executed, he has to be over the age of 18, not mentally retarded, and able to tell right from wrong.

I say stick the needle in his arm, I mean hasn't he suffered enough? Just like a rabid dog....

Anonymous said...

Just some of the other countries that have the death penalty:

Korea, North
Palestinian Authority
Saudi Arabia
United Arab Emirates

Sad that we wage war on the Muslim countries. We have a lot in common with them!

shaine said...

Plucking out your own eye is messed up. Plucking out the other and eating it... I'm going to have to agree with you.

Anonymous said...

He should have choked on it.

Anonymous said...

I've seen it over and over while working in the legal field. Totally nuts - yet competent to stand trial. The State pays the salaries of the MHMR personnel so who do you think they are going to find in favor of? I have a friend who's son suffers from methamphetamine psychosis...hears voices, shaves his head to hear them better, knocked holes in walls so the dead indians in the attic could talk to him, dug a hole in her front yard, filled it with firewood (and marijuana) stripped down to his undies and proceeded to do a "Native American" dance interpretation. He was hauled off for a 72 hour involuntary commital.

Diagnosis: Perfectly sane
Real Diagnosis: No insurance - we don't want to deal with it.

I was onced asked after visiting a guy in jail whom thought I was a Texas Ranger and that I had implanted listening devices into his teeth which "beamed his thoughts, feelings and emotions" to various individuals (he later mailed me a letter with all of their names), "So what you think?" I replied, "He has meth psychosis" to which the jailer replied, "When'd you get your doctor degree?" To which I replied, "I don't need any letters behind my name to know crazy when I see it. Just like I'm not a proctologist either, but I know a pompous ass when I see one." Ahem.

If we want this to stop, we've got to get mad. Damned MAD - and start writing, harrassing, calling our local ELECTED officials until something is done. Otherwise it will remain status quo.

If we can't even seem to have a guy that plucks his eyes out decalred insane, we're much worse off than imagined. I could go on about this forever - but the facts are that it will stay the same as long as we do nothing to change it.