(Thanks to Kristin Houlé of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty for the guest post, adapted from her Mental Illness and the Death Penalty Resource Guide (pdf link). Kristin blogs at Prevention Not Punishment. -ed.)
A mentally ill man who had been refused treatment because his condition had not yet turned him violent suffered lethal injection in Texas eight years ago today for finally turning violent.
Larry Robison was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at the age of 21, three years before the murders for which he was sentenced to die. He began hearing voices and acting strangely as a teenager, claiming to have secret paranormal mental powers and the ability to read people’s minds and move objects from a distance. He joined the Army but was discharged after only a year.
Robison’s parents sought help and warned mental health authorities of their son’s erratic and increasingly aggressive behavior, but were told that the state could offer no resources unless he turned violent. He was shuffled in and out of mental hospitals, admitted after aggressive behavior and released after a period of medicated passivity. He received no regular, ongoing treatment. Robison was not covered by his parents’ insurance, nor did he have his own.
Robison claimed that voices in his head, which came through the clocks in his room, spewed out warnings about Old Testament prophecies of the Apocalypse and told him to murder, behead, and mutilate his roommate, Bruce Gardner. Robison then went next door and murdered four of his neighbors. When authorities arrested him, he told them that he had committed the murders in order to “find God.”
The four prosecutors developing the case against Larry Robison recognized his past history of mental illness and were willing to accept an insanity plea in exchange for life in a mental institution. The Tarrant County district attorney overruled them, however, and ordered them to seek a death sentence. In the courtroom, most evidence of Robison’s mental illness was ruled inadmissible, so the jury heard little of it. None of the three doctors who had diagnosed Robison before the crime as suffering from paranoid schizophrenia were called to testify at his trial. The jury rejected his plea of not guilty by reason of insanity.
Once in prison, evidence of Robison’s mental illness continued to accumulate. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals stayed his execution at one point, doubtful as to whether or not he was competent to be executed. When asked what the execution would be like, Robison replied that he felt like “a little kid at Christmas time waiting for Santa Claus to come.” Eventually, he demanded that his lawyers cease filing appeals based on his mental illness, but only if the state agreed to execute him on the night of a full moon. Despite protests from mental health organizations and concerned citizens throughout the world, the state complied.
Larry Robison’s case drew attention largely as a result of the tireless efforts of his own family, taking a public profile unusual for the family of the condemned. CBS News’ 48 Hours profiled the Robisons shortly before Larry’s execution. They continue to maintain a website, larryrobison.org; mother Lois Robison remains a vocal critic of executing the mentally ill, and delivered this address to a Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights conference last fall.