STUDIES: Six-Part Series Explores Mental Illness and the Death Penalty in Texas

The Texas Tribune recently published a six-part series examining the plight of mentally ill defendants in the Texas criminal justice system. The series focused particularly on death penalty cases, including that of Andre Thomas, a man with a long history of mental illness. He pulled his own eye out in 2004, and later explained that he did it because he kept seeing his wife, whom he killed along with his children just days before. Thomas is among thousands of mentally ill inmates in the Texas system, which has seen years of budget cuts resulting in the reduction of programs. According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, more than 20% of the 290 inmates on Texas death row are diagnosed with some type of mental illness. One former Texas death row inmate, Anthony Graves, recently told a U.S. Congressional committee that he lived under the "worst conditions imaginable" when he was on death row, which is a form of solitary confinement. He said the cells were filthy and the food contained rodent waste. Inmates with mental illness frequently deteriorated while on death row; some inmates set themselves on fire or smeared feces on their faces. Graves was later cleared of all charges and freed from death row, but said he still has not recovered from the experience. An average of 8,500 Texas prison inmates considered dangerous or troublesome are housed in administrative segregation, another form of solitary confinement, typically for 3 years. Most have no access to rehabilitative programs. 

Not all mentally ill murder defendants end up like Andre Thomas. Deanna Laney, a white housewife from Smith County, Texas, stoned her children in 2003, killing two of them and leaving her 14-month-old son permanently maimed. She said God told her to kill the children. She was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was transferred to a state mental hospital. She was released in 2012, but remains under court supervision.

(B. Grissom, "Andre Thomas: Struggling to Maintain Sanity in Prison" and "Andre Thomas: Questions of Competence," Texas Tribune, February 26, 2013, and earlier.)  See Mental Illness and Arbitrariness.