The Lost Boy Scout

For years, Lois and Ken Robison begged for psychiatric help for thier son. Today, they plead for his life and those of other mentally ill prisoners on Death Row.

October 02, 1999|By MAREGO ATHANS | MAREGO ATHANS,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

Lois and Ken Robison raised eight children the old-fashioned way -- Sunday school, Boy Scouts and family outings to drive-in movies. She taught third grade; he taught Spanish.

They are not the sort of people who expected to be visiting Death Row.

But something went wrong with their son Larry: paranoid schizophrenia, doctors finally concluded. The hospitals wouldn't keep him because he wasn't violent. Then, in 1982 at age 24, he proved the doctors wrong and killed five people, including an 11-year-old boy.

That's when Lois Robison, who had spent years fighting to get someone to treat her son, found herself fighting to stop the state of Texas from executing him -- and everyone else who's mentally ill and on Death Row.

In the past 16 years, she has taken her crusade across the country and beyond, from the Texas legislature to the "Today Show," from the Philippines to Baltimore when Flint Gregory Hunt was executed in 1997.

"It never was about just Larry," Lois Robison said recently from her home in Burleson, outside Fort Worth, the day after her son got a temporary reprieve from execution. "It was about all the mentally ill in prison and about getting the proper mental health care for everyone who needs it so we don't have to have these tragedies."

Today her struggle has reached the 11th hour, with the state's highest criminal court set to decide in November whether Larry Robison, 42, is sane enough to be executed.

If Robison -- whose story is part of the current "An Exquisite Dream of Fire" at Baltimore Theatre Project -- is deemed too ill, the state faces a ghoulish prospect: If doctors are assigned to treat him, they could make him well enough to be executed.

"It's a real ethical conflict for the psychiatrists and doctors," said Richard Dieter, executive director of Washington's Death Penalty Information Center. "You're treating them so they can be healthy so they can be executed."

The case, besides adding to the debate over death sentences for the mentally ill, has exposed the frustrations often faced by those desperate for treatment. Had someone listened to Lois Robison early on, five -- maybe six -- lives might have been saved.

The couple, with Lois in the more visible role but Ken working tirelessly by her side, have drawn attention in part because they're so ordinary, both former Scout leaders and Sunday school teachers who were in church whenever the doors were open.

The gray-haired grandmother, describing how a happy middle-class life unraveled, asks people to examine how society handles its mentally ill.

"My Texan culture is very pro death penalty, and my family's attitude is that it's a necessary evil," said Suzanne Rittenberry, vice chair of the board of Texas CURE, which works to improve life for inmates and their families. "But when my parents met Ken and Lois, people who could be their relatives, they had this sense of `there, but for the grace of God.' "

Family members of the victims, however, aren't swayed by the Robisons' dedication, and argue that the death penalty should proceed against a convicted murderer pronounced sane by a jury.

"His mother cannot live with the horror of the fact that her son murdered five people, so she has convinced herself that he's insane and has recruited advocacy groups by convincing them as well," said Melissa Estes, first cousin to one of the victims. "She's retrying the issue of his insanity in the press, which is a subversion of trial by jury in our justice system."

The family history

Larry Robison started showing signs of trouble as an adolescent, though he was never violent until his sudden rampage in 1982, according to family members, and attorneys, medical records and letters going back 20 years.

Larry was the third child and first son of Lois and her first husband, Lloyd Epp, who died of brain cancer when Larry was two.

Three years later, Lois -- struggling to raise four children -- met Ken Robison, a father of two, at church. They couldn't afford baby-sitters, so Lois and Ken dated with six little chaperones. They piled the kids in the station wagon with sandwiches and cookies and a big quilt and headed for the drive-in movies on dollar night. They married and had two children together, for a total of eight.

Larry was quiet and easy going, a day dreamer who loved Captain Kangaroo -- but also an avid reader with high marks, active in Boy Scouts, the swim team, the church youth group and the school band.

He was 12 when his parents first noticed something was wrong. He disrupted class. His grades dropped. He collected strange things, lots of pencils and staplers. By high school he was into drugs, running away from home, suffering bouts of irrational fear and hearing voices.

A Kansas City psychiatric center couldn't identify his problem, nor could a mental health center in Fort Worth.

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