It's a crime to execute an insane man

August 10, 1999|By Molly Ivins

AUSTIN, Texas -- On Aug. 17, the state of Texas is scheduled to kill Larry Robison, a paranoid schizophrenic whose insanity was diagnosed long before he committed a terrible crime. This is like putting someone to death for having cancer or being paraplegic. It is freakish that he ever stood trial at all.

Robison is the son of schoolteachers in Fort Worth. Ken and Lois Robison raised eight children together -- four from her first marriage (her husband died of a malignant brain tumor when Larry was 2), two from his first marriage and two of theirs. She is now retired from teaching third grade, but her husband still teaches at the community college.

When Robison was a teen-ager, he was diagnosed as schizophrenic, the symptoms of which included hearing voices, announcing that he had secret special mental powers and acting strangely.

Robison joined the Air Force but was back home after one year. Only later was the family told that the Air Force dismissed him because of his bizarre behavior. Rather than provide him with any care, the Air Force gave him a general discharge.

His condition continued to deteriorate, and for four years his family tried desperately to get help for him. The Robisons are not wealthy, but they are well-educated and capable of fighting through complex layers of bureaucracy.

They got him into a private hospital, which let him go after two days upon learning that he was no longer on the Robisons' health insurance.

John Peter Smith, the public hospital in Fort Worth, kept him for 30 days and told the Robisons that it could keep him no longer because he was not violent.

Mrs. Robison begged and pleaded, and finally her son was sent to a veterans' hospital that kept him for another month and then had to let him go because, again, he had committed no violence against himself or others.

At one point, Robison spent six months in jail because his parents could not find a hospital that would take him. During his lucid periods, Robison begged his parents to please help. Repeatedly, they were told: "He's not on your health insurance, so we can't take him . . . he's never been violent . . . unless he does something violent, there's nothing we can do."

And then he did.

On the night of Aug. 10, 1982, Robison murdered five people, including his roommate. Robison said he was being told to kill by the voices in his head, the clocks in the room and the stories of the Old Testament. He then went to the house next door and shot and stabbed four people.

Robison readily confessed to the killings. He made two almost-successful suicide attempts while in police custody but was revived from a coma to face the death penalty.

Prosecutor's choice

The normal procedure in such a case is a plea bargain followed by commitment to the state hospital for the criminally insane. The four prosecutors working on the case were prepared to accept an insanity plea and permanent confinement in a mental institution. But Tarrant County District Attorney Tim Curry overruled his staff and put Robison on trial.

The infamous Dr. Death, James Grigson, whose testimony for the state in cases like this was so notoriously biased that he finally became the subject of a lawsuit himself, naturally testified that Robison knew what he was doing and was able to tell right from wrong the night that the clocks told him to kill five people. Most of the well-established evidence of his madness was ruled inadmissible in court.

According to Mrs. Robison, one assistant district attorney told the heart-broken families of the victims that if Robison were allowed to plead insanity, he would be out in 30 days. The state of Texas, which has the responsibility for treating the mentally ill, did nothing about Robison for four years despite the desperate efforts of his family.

State at fault

Having failed spectacularly in its own responsibility, thus helping bring about the deaths of five people, the state now presumes to kill Robison for its own mistakes. When the cure or a means to control schizophrenia is found, almost certainly in the very near future, we will be regarded as cruel barbarians for executing someone who is simply sick.

The governor, with a recommendation by the Board of Pardons and Paroles, could commute Robison's death sentence. Heaven forbid that politics should enter this decision, but George W. Bush is not a candidate who needs to prove that he's for the death penalty -- not after the record 37 executions in 1997 and 16 already this year.

It's time to see the compassion in compassionate conservatism.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Pub Date: 8/10/99

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