Thursday, October 9, 2008

I've Been Waiting 25 Years

Continuing our series, here is the statement that Lois Robison delivered at the "Prevention, Not Execution" event in San Antonio last Friday:

I am a retired third grade teacher, and my husband Ken is a college instructor. We have 8 children (his, mine, and ours), 18 grandchildren, and 18 great-grandchildren. We are just an average American family except that three of our children were mentally ill. Ken’s oldest son, David, was bi-polar and was hospitalized several times. He died of a heart attack when he was 45 years old. Our youngest daughter, Carol, is bi-polar and lives in an assisted living facility in Fort Worth. My oldest son, Larry, was paranoid schizophrenic and was executed by the state of Texas.

Larry was the kind of boy that every mother dreams of having. He was a good student, active in his church youth group, played Little League ball, was on the swim team, played drums in the school band, had a paper route, and would have made Eagle Scout if he hadn’t become ill. By the time he was in Junior High we knew that something was wrong. We tried to get help from the University Medical Center in Kansas, where we lived at the time. Unfortunately, we did not know then of the family history of mental illness (it had been kept a deep dark secret). Larry was not given a correct diagnosis until several years later.

Larry had his first mental breakdown while serving in the Air Force. They sent him home with an Honorable Discharge and no explanation. He was first diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic at Huguley Hospital in Fort Worth when he was 21 years old. Because our insurance no longer covered him, he was discharged. We were told to take him to the JPS County Hospital, where he was kept for 30 days and then discharged because he was “not violent “ and they “needed the bed.” We were told that we should not take him home under any circumstances. I said, “He has no job, no money, no car, and no place to live. You can’t put him out on the street.” They said, “We do it every day.”

We took Larry to the Veteran’s Hospital in Waco, where they kept him for 30 days and discharged him. We were told that he was not well and would get worse without treatment, but they couldn’t keep him any longer because – again -- he was “not violent” and they “needed the bed.” If he became violent, we were told, he could get the long-term treatment that everyone agreed he needed. The VA doctors forgot to have Larry sign a medical release before he left, so we were not able to get medication for him at the Fort Worth Mental Health/Mental Retardation office. Because of the Privacy Act, none of the doctors or hospitals informed us that he needed his medication every day in order to cope. No one would tell us what to do to help Larry. Consequently, he went without medication or treatment for four years.

The first and only violence he was ever accused of was killing five people. We were horrified, and terribly distressed for the victims and their families. We thought Larry would finally be committed to a mental institution, probably for life. We were wrong. Despite his medical history, he was found sane, guilty and sentenced to death. The Appeals Court declared that Larry did not get a fair trial because of the sanity issue, and ordered a new one.

At the second trial we showed his medical records. His aunt came to testify about the history of the mental illness Larry’s natural father’s family, but the DA objected because we did not have the medical records of these relatives. So the jury was not allowed to hear that Larry’s uncle, great uncle, and great-grandfather were all hospitalized with paranoid schizophrenia. Our psychiatrist testified that Larry was paranoid schizophrenic. The DA’s psychiatrist (called “Dr. Death” because he testified for the prosecution in insanity trials all over Texas) said that he was not mentally ill. Larry was again found sane, guilty, and sentenced to die. He was executed on January 21, 2000.

How can a modern, civilized society choose to exterminate its mentally ill citizens rather than treat them? Texas is near the bottom of the 50 states in resources for the mentally ill and at the very top in the number of mentally ill imprisoned and executed. There is something wrong with this picture.

When I was invited by MVFHR and NAMI to participate in the project that we are embarking on today, I said, “I’ve been waiting 25 years for this.” I have been waiting for people to come together and say that the death penalty is not the answer to the problem of untreated mental illness in our country.


Anonymous said...

He had a fair and open trial. Then another fair and open trial. It is sad but he got 2 fair trials and was executed for his crimes. That is how it works. He was not adjudged innocent by those jurors. We need the death penalty to prevent heinous crimes. I feel sorrow for you over your loss, but the world is safer with the death penalty than without.

Susannah Sheffer said...

Actually, there is much to quarrel with about how Larry Robison's court proceedings were conducted, particularly in terms of whether jurors were given information about his history of severe mental illness. But beyond this, I want to comment on the observation that he "was not adjudged innocent by those jurors." A capital trial has two phases: the guilt phase and the penalty phase. It is quite possible, and quite legal, to find a defendant guilty but decide not to impose the death penalty and instead to impose a different sentence. Larry Robison's guilt is not in dispute. Whether execution is the best societal response, and in the context of this particular discussion specifically whether it is the best response to severe mental illness, is another question.