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2004: Case Study: Kelsey Patterson

May 18th, 2008 Kristin Houle

The case of Kelsey Patterson, who was executed in 2004, is one of the most compelling examples of what can happen when the mental health system fails to provide adequate care and in doing so, puts the public at risk. For more than two decades, Patterson struggled with paranoid schizophrenia. His severe delusions and elaborate conspiracy theories led him to commit several irrational and motiveless assaults. Yet instead of investing resources in a long-term treatment plan, the state of Texas largely left Patterson to his own devices, until one day his mental illness pushed him to the point of no return.

A Cycle of Illness, Violence, and Neglect

Kelsey Patterson spent much of the 1980s in and out of two state mental hospitals. His condition would be stabilized, but would deteriorate once he was removed from psychiatric care. According to a Houston Chronicle from 11 August 2002 (“Mentally Ill Killer’s Life on the Line”), when he stopped taking his medication, he would become belligerent. An earlier article in the same newspaper (“Is Mentally Ill Death Row Inmate Sane Enough to Die?”, Houston Chronicle, 14 November 1999) noted he was “left half-treated and unsupervised by the state for years despite a history of psychotically inspired, near-fatal assaults.”

Kelsey Patterson: Not all there.

In 1980, Patterson shot and wounded Richard Lane, a Dallas co-worker who he believed was conspiring against him and attempting to poison his food (it was Lane’s first day on the job). Lane survived and Patterson was sent to the maximum security unit at Rusk State Hospital, where he was found incompetent to stand trial and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Although restored to competency through treatment, doctors determined that he had been unable to conform his conduct to the law, a key provision of Texas’ insanity statute at the time. Prosecutors dismissed the charges, deeming him insane at the time of the crime.

In 1983, Patterson shot and wounded a co-worker in his hometown of Palestine in another motiveless, delusional assault. Again he spent months at Rusk State Hospital before being restored to competency. Once again he was found unable to conform his behavior to the law, and the attempted murder charge was dismissed.

Back in Dallas in 1986, he assaulted yet another co-worker and was sent to Terrell State Hospital. As with the previous incidents, no charges were filed because of his mental health status. He was hospitalized once more in 1988 after reportedly threatening family members and complaining that people were trying to poison him. That hospital stay lasted only 34 days.

Throughout this period, Patterson denied that he was mentally ill, would stop taking his medications, and refused to comply with treatment plans. His delusions continued to worsen, and he believed that everyone was out to get him, particularly “the authorities.” According to his brother, he sometimes would tape the edges of his windows and doors to determine if anyone had come in the room. He also heard voices talking to him through the walls and over the loudspeakers during his time in jail.

On September 25, 1992, just days after his brother once again tried to have him committed to a psychiatric facility, Patterson walked a short distance from his home to a local oil supply business in Palestine, where he shot and killed both the owner, Louis Oates, and his secretary, Dorothy Kay Harris, at whom he screamed “You ain’t going to get away with it.” After the shooting, he put down the gun, stripped to his socks, and paced, shouting incomprehensibly until the police arrived. As with his previous assaults, there seemed to be no real motive or explanation for the crime – Patterson had only a casual acquaintance with the victims. Yet in this instance, the state not only decided to pursue charges but also to seek the death penalty, arguing that Patterson met the new legal standard of sanity, which merely required the defendant to know that his conduct was wrong. The ability to conform one’s conduct to the law was no longer part of the insanity defense in Texas. By all accounts, however, Patterson’s delusional beliefs were the same as always.

Excerpt from a 13-page letter from Kelsey Patterson to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. (Image owned by author.)

 

Patterson’s Competency Hearing and Capital Trial

At his competency hearing, two physicians did not dispute his mental illness but declared Patterson to be competent to stand trial. Dr. James Grigson – who had diagnosed Patterson with schizophrenia 12 years earlier – reversed course and testified that in this latest assault, Patterson had been sane at the time of the crime. He had spoken with Patterson for less than five minutes and had not conducted a comprehensive evaluation, yet was absolutely confident in his assessment.*

Against the advice of his attorneys, Patterson took the witness stand during the hearing and rambled about the conspiracies against him. He offered this explanation for his behavior:

They have some type of implant devices that they used on me in the military, which I receive. Like the device that they put in the inner ear in which they can send subliminal message and make a person act beyond their controllability to know you have taken an action.”

The jury found him competent to stand trial, in spite of the clear evidence that he did not possess a rational or factual understanding of the proceedings against him and was unable to consult with his attorneys, whom he believed were plotting against him. Patterson was constantly removed from the courtroom during his trial because of his disruptive behavior and outbursts about the devices implanted in his body. The jury rejected his insanity defense, found him guilty of capital murder, and sentenced him to death.

A Permanent Stay of Execution

During his time on death row, Patterson consistently maintained that he was the victim of an elaborate conspiracy, and he wrote rambling, incoherent letters to court officials, his family, politicians, and others. He refused to meet with mental health professionals or his lawyers, which made it impossible to formally assess his competence. Both state and federal courts upheld his conviction and found him competent to be executed. In November 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal and the state set his execution for the following May.

Upon learning of his execution date, Patterson’s letters referred to a “permanent stay of execution” that he said he had received on grounds of innocence. Competency for execution requires an inmate to be aware of the impending execution and the reason for it.

On May 17, 2004, the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles issued an extremely rare recommendation of clemency for Kelsey Patterson because of his mental illness; the vote was 5-1 and was only the second such recommendation in the board’s history. Governor Rick Perry rejected the recommendation, however, “in the interests of justice and public safety.” Kelsey Patterson was executed on May 18, 2004, delusional until the very end, as evidenced by his incoherent last statement:

Statement to what? State what? I am not guilty of the charge of capital murder. Steal me and my family’s money. My truth will always be my truth. There is no kin and no friend; no fear what you do to me. No kin to you undertaker. Murderer. … Get my money. Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my rights. Give me my life back.

For more information on death penalty cases involving mental illness, go to http://www.tcadp.org/index.php?page=mental-illness or visit http://preventionnotpunishment.blogspot.com

* Dr. Grigson was known as “Dr. Death” because his testimony was instrumental in sending so many people to death row. He later was expelled from the American Psychiatric Association and Texas Society of Psychiatric Physicians because of his unethical, unscientific testimony in such cases.

Kristin Houle is a 2007 Soros Justice Fellow based in Austin, Texas.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Famous Last Words,Guest Writers,Lethal Injection,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Other Voices,Texas,USA

12 thoughts on “2004: Case Study: Kelsey Patterson”

  1. Meaghan says:

    Mr. Kenway, if you are referring to mentally ill people as “monsters” you should not be working in the field.

    I suffer from severe mental illness myself and have been inpatient numerous times. I’m not a monster. I’ve encountered people like you.

    1. lawguy says:

      I suspect that Mr.[?] Kenway, is neither a real person, nor an employee of a mental health facility. In fact I’d guess that he himself suffers from severe mental health issues, whatever his name may be.

  2. Connor Kenway says:

    This man should have been put to death the first time he was committed. None of you commentors have ever worked at a mental health facility as i have. These people are monsters, deserving no sympathy.

  3. Justin Van Horn says:

    I live in ETX and grew up in this time frame. I had never heard of Patterson until today. This is sickening. My heart goes out to those he hurt and killed but there are more guilty parties involved, local good ol’ boy politics and Rick Perry did the world no favors. What can we do to prevent this? Without some political or financial pull… Nothing.

  4. ciecrett says:

    i agree with the first sentence…

    “The case of Kelsey Patterson, who was executed in 2004, is one of the most compelling examples of what can happen when the mental health system fails to provide adequate….”

    …Because the state of Texas did fail to keep their people protected, they knew he had a disorder and they let him out of the mentally hospital,they knew he refused to take his medication,so they also knew that his disorder would have something to do with this murder which it has everything to do with it because he has been in and out of a mental hospital and was let free because he wouldnt take his medication…If the state of Texas wouldn’t have let him out he wouldn’t of had any chance to kill anybody…It’s because they let him out is the reason he killed…The state of Texas is the one to blame,they executed an innocent man for what they did…

  5. Souza says:

    How the heck did he find that weapon in the first place ?
    Guns should be banned. Eeryone except for innocent and honest people has one.

  6. Verneeda Alvarez says:

    To me, a shifting of housing should be done for trhe mentally ill, that
    are unstable in their ability to understand the effects of not taken their
    meds and the consequence being that they are liable to committ crimes. Throwing the mentally ill in prisons and not treatment for the
    criminally insane in hospitals is risky and if given the death penalty equally unjust. It says to me, that “we can’t handle this problem, so we
    are going to just execute this person.” We can spend billions for war,
    but we don’t provide ways to protect the insane from themselves and
    others. To execute the criminally insane is the vilest method of solving
    this problem. They belong in a facility, especially the criminally insane,
    and we need competent doctors understand how to treat people
    that minds goes in and out of insanity. We are at risk when this
    problem is not solved, and given top priority for funding facilities,
    in assuring that the public is safer. Sadly, there is a threat of closing a
    facility in my state, and we don’t need them homeless, not in America.

  7. Of all your stories this one has shaken me most. I understand that the people involved in this case knew all the circumstances, that they were qualified better than I will ever be, but I can’t believe they had no choice. Just think that in the 21 century mentally ill people are still executed. No, even worse.Just think that in the 21 century people are still executed…

  8. Ward Larkin says:

    I disagree with the 1st sentence of this report.

    “The case of Kelsey Patterson … is one of the most compelling examples of what can happen when the mental health system fails to provide adequate care ….”

    Kelsey Patterson is not one of the most compelling examples of what happens when the mental healthcare system fails to provide adequate care. Kelsey Patterson is but one of 100s (if not 1000s) of examples of otherwise preventable murder and violent assault due to the deliberate indifference of mental healthcare professionals.

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