Finding justice for mentally ill defendants

May 10, 2004:     Austin American-Statesman

Finding justice for mentally ill defendants

There is little doubt that Texas will execute Kelsey Patterson on May 18 if left to its own devices. Neither is there doubt that Patterson is guilty of murdering two East Texans. Even so, this case never should have reached this point, given that Patterson is severely mentally ill.

In 1992, Patterson was wandering the streets with a hand gun when he happened upon Louis Oates, a Palestine businessman, and fatally shot him. When Oates' secretary ran out from the office, Patterson also killed her. Patterson, who lived in the same town, barely knew them. Following the shootings, he walked back to his nearby home, stripped to his socks and walked naked in the streets until police arrived. Prosecutors have yet to establish a motive in the double homicide.

Patterson was in and out of state mental hospitals during the 1980s following random acts of violence linked to schizophrenia when he failed to take  his medication. He was released after being subdued with medication and treatment. The system would restart. His case reveals anew a deep  breach in the justice system and a breakdown in the state's mental health system.  After the first relapse, Patterson should have been committed long term, or at the minimum, been watched closely.

Patterson's claim of being a paranoid schizophrenic is not a ruse. The history and evidence of his mental illness is so compelling that it troubled one of the most conservative members of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"What are we doing here?" Judge Edith Jones asked Assistant Attorney General Gina Bunn, who defended the state's decision to execute Patterson before a panel of the federal court. "This is a very sick man."

The cycle of violence exhibited in Patterson's case is all too familiar. We recently heard the tragic story of a Beaumont man, Kenneth Lee Pierott, charged with murder in the asphyxiation of a 6-year-old boy in an oven, six years after a jury found the Pierott innocent by reason of insanity of beating his disabled sister to death. Deanna Laney, a Tyler mother, was found innocent of murdering two of her three children because she was insane. And there is the case of University of Texas graduate student Jackson Ngai, who is accused of using a meat cleaver to kill a UT professor.  Ngai told police he was trying to remove a computer chip from her brain.

Obviously, the system is failing. A legislative committee is studying whether to revise Texas law so that a jury could find such people guilty but insane, allowing severely mentally ill people to be closely supervised and treated in secure settings. That won't satisfy everyone. But it is surely better than executing mentally ill people who repeatedly commit violent crimes or locking them away in regular prisons without adequate treatment.

In Patterson's case, lawyers are scrambling to win an appeal, or at least a stay, asserting that Patterson is legally incompetent to be executed. He  was found to be sane at the time of his 1992 crime by an East Texas court that sentenced him to death.

Patterson believes that a foreign device, implanted in his body, is being used by evil forces to control him and do him harm. The conspiracy against him takes the form of the "hell pledge" inscribed in a secret book. And nearly everyone, from the judges and doctors affiliated with his case to the lawyers who represent him, are "hell workers."

Patterson believes their purpose is to carry out the pledge against him, and consequently, has refused to cooperate with mental health experts and  his lawyers.

His fate now rests with federal courts. It's clear that executing him won't resolve the issue of how to protect society from severely mentally ill people who turn violent. That is an issue for the Legislature.