Trouble in Mind

How should criminals who are mentally ill be punished?

March 2013By Comments

Courtesy of the Boren family

Wanda Banks remembers Andre Thomas when he was a bright, curious kid in her Sunday school class at Harmony Baptist Church, a little boy so eager to speak about the Bible stories he had memorized that he would shoot his hand into the air before she could even finish her question. Harmony Baptist, which sits at the edge of a predominantly black neighborhood on Sherman’s east side, served as a second home to Andre during his chaotic childhood. Banks used to drive him and his four brothers home on the church bus after Sunday school, and during the winter months, she always made a point to drop them off last so they could stay warm a little longer. Despite the charity that their mother received from the church, their small, unkempt home often lacked heat, electricity, and running water. Still, Andre never complained. “He was a very respectful kid, just a sweet kid,” Banks told me. “He could have been so brilliant with the right set of circumstances.”

From a young age, Andre’s appetite for knowledge about the world around him was insatiable. “He wanted to know why the grass was green and why the sky was blue,” one of his brothers, Danny Ross, told me. “He wanted answers for everything.” He was a tinkerer too, taking things apart to figure out how they worked, once disassembling a beat-up brown Fiat that his father, Danny Thomas, had bought for $300. “He tore it all to pieces and then put it back together,” recalled Thomas, shaking his head at the memory. Thomas was an ephemeral presence in his son’s life, providing little in the way of guidance. But Andre still managed to excel in school early on, and he made ambitious plans, sketching intricate drawings of the futuristic cars that he planned to design one day. 

As he neared adolescence, though, something seemed to go awry. Around the time he turned ten years old, in 1993, he started telling classmates about the voices in his head. He said he could hear angels and demons arguing with one another. Sometimes he would shout back at the demons, his eyes widening and his body breaking out in a sweat. Trying to drown out the voices, he started drinking and later smoking marijuana. He was still in elementary school when he slit his wrists in what would be the first of many failed suicide attempts. Soon his church attendance dropped off, and Banks noticed that when he did stop by Harmony Baptist, he seemed lost in his own world. The troubles continued to worsen. When he was thirteen, he tried to kill himself again, sawing on his wrists with a butcher knife. Two years later, he briefly landed in a juvenile detention center after a string of arrests, including for car theft. He was put on suicide watch after he threatened to kill himself but was released two days later, without any access to psychological counseling. Though he was just fifteen years old, he had been manifesting signs of severe mental illness for at least five years.

Still, there were times when the voices subsided and Andre was just a normal teenager. He walked or rode his bike around town, going to and from his girlfriend’s house and the Burger King where he worked after school, seeming little different from his peers. He dropped out of the ninth grade when his girlfriend, a petite blonde named Laura Boren, became pregnant, and he began working several jobs to support them, including washing dishes at Red Lobster. When Andre Jr. was born, he was a proud father, nicknaming the baby boy Juicy. He and Laura exchanged wedding vows at Harmony Baptist on March 17, 2001—Andre’s eighteenth birthday. Andre no doubt hoped that he would get better and that the hallucinations and suicidal thoughts would eventually stop. But the teenagers, whose relationship was a stormy one, separated only four months later, and in the wake of their breakup, Andre’s behavior became increasingly erratic. The voices in his head screamed at him, and he suffered from psychotic delusions. He obsessed over Revelation and sometimes duct-taped his mouth shut for days at a time. Laura moved in with another man, Bryant Hughes, with whom she had a daughter, Leyha, in 2003, but Andre fixated on reconciling with her.

By 2004, Andre was 21 years old, deeply mentally ill, and receiving no treatment. On the bright, clear morning of March 27, he charged up the stairs to the third-floor apartment where Laura lived and kicked in the door. Her boyfriend had already left for work. Andre was holding three knives, one for each of his intended victims. He first encountered Laura, who ran toward him, screaming “No!” Andre plunged a knife into her chest. He then reached in and pulled out what he believed was her heart (he had, in fact, extracted part of her lung). Next, he headed for the children’s room, where Andre Jr. and 1-year-old Leyha were sleeping. Andre held down his 4-year-old son and stabbed him before moving on to Leyha. He carved out each of the children’s hearts. Finally, Andre jammed a knife into his own chest three times and lay down beside Laura on the living room floor, expecting to die. Confounded when he didn’t, he slipped the organs he had removed into his pocket and walked more than five miles home. A few hours later, he went to the Sherman Police Department, where he confessed to the murders and asked if he would be forgiven. “I thought it was what God wanted me to do,” he later told investigators. 

After undergoing emergency surgery to repair his life-threatening stab wounds, Andre was moved to the Grayson County jail, where his behavior became more and more psychotic. He gestured wildly and announced that he was going to save the world. He claimed to be “the thirteenth warrior on the dollar bill” and said that Laura and the children weren’t dead but that their hearts had been freed from evil. He spent much of his time poring over the Bible. Six days after the murders, he read Matthew 5:29: “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” Taking the admonition literally, he reached into his right eye socket and pulled out his eyeball. When he was rushed to the hospital afterward, he asked repeatedly to see Laura. He wanted to ask her forgiveness. The children, he said, had absolved him, but she would not. “I love her and I need her to forgive me,” he told medical personnel.

The following year, a jury found Andre guilty of capital murder and sentenced him to death, rejecting his lawyers’ arguments that he was not guilty by reason of insanity. Prosecutors had argued that his crime had been fueled by the marijuana, beer, and cough medicine he had been abusing and that his off-the-wall behavior afterward stemmed from his sudden withdrawal from alcohol and drugs. They also presented a report from a doctor who said that Andre was deliberately exaggerating his symptoms of mental illness to avoid punishment. He was sent to death row in Livingston, where, like the rest of the condemned, he spent 23 hours a day in isolation, confined to a six-by-ten-foot cell. His mental state continued to deteriorate. The conflicting voices of the angels and demons echoed relentlessly in his ears. He couldn’t understand why he was being imprisoned for following God’s orders to kill Laura and the children. Andre cut his throat and wrists and threatened to hang himself. Then, in December 2008, he pulled out his remaining eye and ate it. 

As he awaits execution, Andre and his tragic case force uncomfortable questions about the intersection of mental illness and the criminal justice system. With the downsizing of psychiatric hospitals over the past several decades, jails and prisons have become repositories for the mentally ill, and Andre is but one inmate in Texas’s increasingly disturbed prison population. More than 15 percent of the state’s approximately 152,000 inmates currently have a mental health diagnosis. On Texas’s death row, more than 20 percent of the 290 inmates are considered mentally ill. Legislators are not unaware of the problem, and in 2011, even while facing a multibillion-dollar budget shortfall, they allocated additional funding to mental health services statewide in the hope, at least in part, of reducing costs to the criminal justice system. But as lawmakers meet in Austin this spring, problems that have been decades in the making persist. Mental health services remain perilously underfunded and unevenly distributed, with entire swaths of rural Texas lacking any access to psychiatric care. 

The toughest questions that Andre’s case presents, however, are not political in nature but moral. As a society, we want justice for the victims of his horrific crime. But what if Andre is not capable of understanding right from wrong or of comprehending why he is facing execution? Conversely, if the death penalty is not intended for someone who cuts out the hearts of two children, then for whom is it meant? At the center of this dilemma is Andre himself, who, now almost thirty, is presently too mentally ill to be housed on death row. For the past four years, he has been confined to a special psychiatric prison facility, where he remains indefinitely. All of which raises perhaps the most difficult question of all: What should be done with Andre Thomas? 

THE U.S. SUPREME COURT explored a similar conundrum in 1986 when it examined the case of Alvin Ford, who had shot and killed a police officer during a botched robbery in Florida more than a decade earlier. At issue was whether Ford, who was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic during his incarceration, was competent enough to be executed. One psychiatrist had determined that his psychosis was so severe that he could not fully understand why he had been sentenced to death or what the purpose of his punishment was. Ultimately the court ruled in Ford v. Wainwright that the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment prohibited the execution of the insane. “We may seriously question the retributive value of executing a person who has no comprehension of why he has been singled out and stripped of his fundamental right to life,” wrote Justice Thurgood Marshall. In his majority opinion, Marshall referred to “the natural abhorrence civilized societies feel at killing one who has no capacity to come to grips with his own conscience or deity.” But the court left it up to the states to determine who was too mentally ill to be put to death.

Texas, for its part, has consistently set the bar low when deciding both who is competent enough to stand trial and who is competent enough to be executed. “The system is very skeptical toward the mentally ill,” explained Kathryn Kase, the executive director of the Texas Defender Service. This skepticism was most vividly on display in the notorious case of Scott Panetti, whom Kase’s nonprofit currently represents. A Navy veteran, Panetti was convicted of shooting to death his mother- and father-in-law in Fredericksburg in front of his estranged wife and three-year-old daughter in 1992. In the years leading up to the killings, Panetti had been hospitalized no fewer than fourteen times for schizophrenia, manic depression, auditory hallucinations, and paranoid delusions. He had once become convinced that the devil possessed his home and had buried some belongings in the yard. After the murders, he told police that his alter ego, Sarge, had done the killing. Still, he was not only found competent to stand trial but also allowed to represent himself, pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. During his trial, in Kerrville, he wore a purple cowboy getup, at times rambled incoherently, and submitted a witness list that included Jesus Christ and John F. Kennedy. The jury sentenced him to death.

As his execution date approached, in 2004, Panetti’s post-conviction lawyers appealed to state and federal courts, arguing that his mental illness rendered him incompetent. Panetti believed that he was going to be put to death not as a consequence of the murders but because the state was trying to stop him from preaching the gospel. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals was not swayed and held that Panetti’s awareness that he had been convicted of murder and was slated for execution was adequate to establish his competency. The Supreme Court intervened in 2007 and, in the landmark decision Panetti v. Quarterman, ruled that it is not sufficient for an inmate simply to be aware that he will be executed. The defendant must have a “rational understanding” of his punishment—that is, he must grasp that it is retribution for the crime he committed. 

The court left it up to the states to determine what constitutes “rational understanding,” and Texas has so far interpreted this standard broadly. Convicted murderer Steven Staley, who suffers from grandiose and paranoid delusions, was recently forced to take powerful antipsychotic drugs so that he could be considered mentally competent enough to be executed. His lawyers contend that the forced medication raises troubling ethical issues, and last May, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals—citing no reason for the reprieve—halted Staley’s execution with two days to spare. Panetti’s and Staley’s cases are still being litigated, and their fates remain uncertain. But many legal observers believe that the Supreme Court will soon have to take up the question of whether such defendants should be afforded the same constitutional exemption from the death penalty as two other groups of people, the mentally retarded and juveniles. 

The court’s decisions on the mentally retarded and juveniles are fairly recent. In 1998 Daryl Atkins was convicted in Virginia of abducting a man, forcing him to withdraw money at an ATM, and shooting him eight times. Defense experts found that Atkins had mild mental retardation. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case at a time when many states had moved to ban executions of the mentally retarded (Texas lawmakers had approved such a bill in 2001, but Governor Rick Perry bucked the national trend and vetoed it, citing the need for jurors, not the government, to make such determinations). In its 2002 opinion, the court noted, “Mentally retarded persons frequently know the difference between right and wrong and are competent to stand trial, but, by definition, they have diminished capacities to understand and process information, to communicate, to abstract from mistakes and learn from experience, to engage in logical reasoning, to control impulses, and to understand others’ reactions.” Their diminished capacities, the court decided, made the purposes of the death penalty—retribution and deterrence—unattainable. Lawyers for at least ninety Texas death row inmates have now brought so-called Atkins claims before the courts, arguing that their clients’ limited cognitive functioning exempted them from execution. Of those, fourteen were deemed mentally retarded, and their sentences were commuted to life. 

Three years after the Atkins ruling, the Supreme Court made another momentous decision, prohibiting the death penalty for those who were younger than eighteen when they committed their crimes. The court had taken up the Missouri case of Christopher Simmons, who was seventeen when he and a friend broke into the home of a woman whom they robbed, tied up, and threw off a bridge to her death. All told, the teenagers netted $6 from their crime. In an amicus brief to the court, the American Medical Association, together with other medical, mental health, and social work organizations, explained that scientific research showed what most parents already know: the minds of adolescents are not completely developed. “Cutting-edge brain-imaging technology reveals that regions of the adolescent brain do not reach a fully mature state until after the age of eighteen,” the brief stated. “These regions are precisely those associated with impulse control, regulation of emotions, risk assessment, and moral reasoning.” In their opinion, the justices concluded that the “differences between juveniles . . . and adult offenders are too marked” to risk allowing youths to be held to the same standard of culpability. In Texas the ruling meant that 29 death row inmates’ sentences were commuted. 

Should the mentally ill be given the same consideration? Those who believe so point out that, like juveniles and the mentally retarded, people such as Andre Thomas have a limited capacity for reasoning, judgment, and impulse control. They argue that these defendants should be held less culpable for their actions and thus be spared the death penalty. But would communities devastated by the depraved acts of violent criminals who happen to be mentally ill countenance that? 

Questions about how we deal with mentally ill criminals have come into stark focus in the wake of recent mass killings across the country. The deaths of 26 people, including 20 first graders, at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut, at the hands of a young man who had previously shown the hallmarks of mental illness are only the most recent to force a national conversation about mental health and crime. Yet in the Newtown killings, as in the Columbine massacre thirteen years earlier, the disturbed killer turned his gun on himself, relieving jurors from having to assess his punishment. In cases like Andre’s, where the perpetrator lives, and where the signs of his mental illness were misunderstood or ignored for years, deciding the appropriate punishment becomes a more exquisite challenge. (Courts in Colorado are now trying to sort out how to appropriately punish James Holmes, whose lawyers contend he was mentally ill when he walked into an Aurora movie theater last year and fired a hailstorm of bullets.)

There is also, of course, societal culpability to consider. Andre was clearly suffering from an untreated mental illness—one that an underfunded and understaffed mental health system had neglected to address. That his community failed him is a fact that haunts Wanda Banks. “You’d think I would have known something was wrong with him,” she told me one day at Harmony Baptist, her expression pained. “You’d think he was a bully walking around when he was a child, but he wasn’t. He was just a normal kid.”

ANDRE WAS NOT the only person in his family to hear voices. His mother, Rochelle Thomas—like her mother before her—believed she received special communiqués from God. She rarely worked and had difficulty providing for her sons’ most basic needs. Members of Harmony Baptist recall discovering her filling buckets from the spigot outside the church one day when she needed drinking water. She seemed overwhelmed by her brood of boys, which grew to include a sixth son when Andre was thirteen. Andre and two of his brothers shared the same father; Rochelle had married Danny Thomas in 1975. 

Danny had his own problems, including run-ins with the law and drug and alcohol abuse. Once, after a night of drinking when the boys were little, Danny grabbed his gun, yelled “Kill!” and shot a bullet upstairs, where Andre and his brothers were sleeping; fortunately no one was injured. Danny and Rochelle split up in 1989, when Andre was six, and Rochelle’s erratic behavior continued. She obsessed about the messages she received from God and walked around the house with little clothing on, refusing to dress herself even when her sons begged her to do so. Sometimes she told Andre that she wished she had aborted him. 

Ultimately Andre and his brother Brian would be diagnosed with schizophrenia, a disease with a significant genetic component, and his brother James was also found to be mentally ill. The occurrence of mental illness is exceedingly rare before adolescence, but Andre began exhibiting symptoms before puberty. When schizophrenia is diagnosed early and the child gets treatment—such as psychotropic medication and behavioral therapy—much of the havoc that the disease wreaks on its victims can be prevented. But for someone like Andre, who grew up poor and too far removed from the state’s urban centers, little treatment is available. Texas has often ranked last in the amount it spends per capita on mental health care, and fewer than one third of children who have severe emotional disturbances receive treatment through community mental health services, according to a recent statewide study. Without any medication to quell Andre’s auditory hallucinations, he grew steadily worse. 

“His personality seemed to change,” his friend Christopher Bennett would later state in an affidavit. “Each year after [he began hearing voices], Andre seemed more strange. He continued to tell me more and more about the demons as the years went on.” A therapist who evaluated Andre while he was on probation for disorderly conduct about five years after he began hearing voices reported that the troubled teenager had “disturbed personality characteristics; irrational, poor judgment; perception distortions; feelings of unreality; and anxiety.”

Yet to Laura Boren and her family, Andre appeared to be a charming and smart young man—a slightly older version of the cheerful boy his Sunday school teacher had been so taken with. “He was extremely good at presenting his best side,” Laura’s father, Paul Boren, told me one evening last fall as he sat across from his wife, Sherry, in their warm, dimly lit living room, surrounded by photos of their late daughter. Under the glow of a lamp on a side table, Laura smiled softly against a dreamy Glamour Shots backdrop. The collection of angel figurines she had gathered during her short life decorated the bookshelves, their protective wings spread over snapshots of her with her children in happier days. When Laura had first started dating Andre, in junior high, the Borens didn’t know that he heard voices or had started drinking and smoking marijuana. They were aware that he’d had some run-ins with the law, but they thought that a kid as smart as Andre was sure to have a bright future. He spent so much time in their home that they considered him part of the family. Their acceptance of him was so complete that when they learned their fourteen-year-old daughter was pregnant, they begrudgingly accepted it. “Earlier, my feeling had been that if one of my girls got pregnant, I’d kill the guy,” explained Paul, a hulking but mild-mannered truck driver. “But when I found out that Laura was having a baby, I was like, ‘Okay, so what do we do now?’ I was calm. Her life was set at that point, and her world had changed.”

Even after Laura and Andre’s tumultuous breakup, when Andre’s mental state began to deteriorate more rapidly, the Borens considered him part of the family. “He was broke, and he’d come over here wanting to earn money, so I’d find him something to do and give him twenty dollars,” Paul recalled. He and his wife became increasingly distressed, however, by Andre’s irresponsible behavior. While Laura busied herself working and raising their son, Andre drank heavily, smoked pot, and cycled in and out of jail, once after assaulting a man he accused of sleeping with Laura and again after trying to evade police who attempted to pull him over for a broken taillight. 

It was not long before Andre was acting conspicuously crazy. He dyed his hair bright colors and donned camouflage clothing. He talked incessantly about the Bible. Once, he ran into a church and dunked his head in the basin of holy water because, he said, he was possessed by demons. Still, he managed to work on and off for the City of Sherman, in a position that included digging graves at the municipal cemetery. During preparations for several funerals, Andre informed his boss that he was going to kill himself. Then he would climb down into the freshly dug grave and lie motionless on the cold, black dirt at the bottom. 

In January 2003, when Andre was nineteen, he moved in with his brother Brian, who had recently been released from a state mental hospital and had begun huffing paint. They fought constantly and often violently. Later that month, after a week of arguing over the volume of Andre’s music—Brian said it was sending evil spirits through the walls—Brian barged into his brother’s room and started punching him in the head. Andre, who would later explain he was tired of his brother beating him, went to the kitchen, grabbed an eight-inch-long butcher knife, and stabbed his brother in the back. When police arrived at their trailer, Andre was standing in the middle of the living room with his hands raised in the air. He was taken to jail, where he stayed for three months until a grand jury declined to issue an indictment. 

By then, Laura had moved in with Bryant Hughes, a regular at the Church’s Chicken where she worked, and she had given birth to their daughter, Leyha. She began restricting Andre’s time alone with their son. Andre, though, remained fixated on Laura and on rekindling their relationship. He also became sicker. By early 2004, he had started silencing himself with duct tape, once wearing a strip over his mouth for three consecutive days. He carried on involved conversations with his hand, or with the floor. He told friends that he felt he was living the same day over and over again. One day that March, a friend took him to a local mental health clinic, where Andre declared that he couldn’t stand the sound of his own voice any longer and that he wanted to die. “If I can’t talk to someone now, I will throw myself in front of a bus,” he shouted. Concerned that he was a danger to himself and others, the clinic’s staff urged him to go to a nearby hospital and requested that an emergency detention order be granted, so he could be taken into police custody if he did not show up. Though Andre never reported to the hospital, he was not sought out or arrested.

The day after he visited the mental health clinic, his aunt Angel Thomas—whom he adored and who had, throughout his childhood, let him take refuge at her house whenever he needed to escape his own—died of complications from lung disease. “I think everything came down on Andre then,” observed Angel’s sister, Doris Gonzalez. “He would go and sit in the corner and cry, or he would go in the bathroom and cry. But he could never tell you why.” At Angel’s funeral, Andre told another of his aunts that he wasn’t doing well. When she asked what was bothering him, he pointed to his head.

On Thursday, March 25, 2004, about a week after his twenty-first birthday, Andre showed up at Laura and Bryant’s apartment drunk and high on the cough medicine Coricidin. He said he wanted to see his son, but he was so wasted that he passed out, facedown in the middle of the living room floor. When Andre came to, Laura exploded in anger and ordered him to leave. 

That night, as he lay in bed, still high and muttering about angels, Andre stabbed himself in the chest with a knife, then fell asleep. The next morning, his mother, who had moved in with him, took him to the hospital, where Andre explained that he had cut himself trying to “cross over into heaven.” A nurse noted that Andre was psychotic. An emergency room physician, Dr. William Bowen, examined him while he rattled on about a new world order and the hidden meaning of symbols on the dollar bill. After determining that Andre’s self-inflicted stab wound was not serious, the doctor left the room to apply for an emergency detention order to keep him hospitalized. But by the time Bowen returned, Andre had slipped out of the hospital unnoticed. Bowen called the police and provided a description of him, explaining that he could be dangerous.

Less than 24 hours later, Andre would stash three knives in his pockets, charge up the stairs to Laura’s apartment, and smash in the door. 

ANDRE’S CRIME LEFT the town of Sherman reeling. News of the murders dominated the front page of the Herald Democrat for days, and a makeshift memorial grew outside Laura’s building, with bouquets of flowers and teddy bears filling the sidewalk and stairway that led to apartment 340. An overflow crowd attended the funeral at Fairview Baptist Church, which had to bring in extra seats for all the mourners. The savagery of the killings was unprecedented in Sherman, and almost immediately there were cries for the ultimate punishment. “I really can’t remember a single person I spoke to in town who didn’t think it should be prosecuted as a death penalty case,” recalled Grayson County district attorney Joe Brown.

When Brown learned six days after the murders that Andre had gouged out his right eye, he knew at once that the trial would center on Andre’s mental state. He and R. J. Hagood, Andre’s court-appointed lawyer, asked that the 21-year-old be evaluated by mental health experts to determine whether he was competent to stand trial. The standard for legal competency, which the Supreme Court decided more than fifty years ago, is minimal: a defendant must simply be able to communicate with his lawyer and understand the charges against him. Initially, the doctors who evaluated Andre—including the state’s own psychologist, Dr. Peter Oropeza—found that he failed to meet even that basic threshold. During his second visit with Oropeza, Andre refused to speak and instead wrote down his responses, explaining that his mouth had gotten him into trouble before. Wearing a white bandage over his empty eye socket, he breathed heavily, drew pictures of a winged woman (“There’s no telling how much I’ve broken her heart already,” he wrote), laughed at inappropriate times, and became increasingly distraught as the interview wore on. “I am of the opinion that at present he appears incompetent to stand trial, based on his current mental state,” Oropeza noted in his report. But the doctor wasn’t thoroughly convinced that Andre’s illness was organic. He suggested that other psychologists evaluate whether he was feigning or exaggerating symptoms of mental illness to stall his trial.

Based on the recommendations of Oropeza and a forensic psychologist hired by the defense, state district judge James Fry declared Andre incompetent and sent him to North Texas State Hospital, in Vernon, for treatment. In Texas, when a defendant is found not competent to stand trial, he is sent to a facility—usually a state hospital—where he receives medication and therapy until he improves enough to be deemed capable of taking part in the legal proceedings against him. (A severely mentally ill defendant may remain in limbo for years as doctors try to stabilize him.) In Vernon Andre was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Doctors prescribed Zyprexa, a powerful antipsychotic medication, and made him wear padded mittens to prevent him from harming himself.

Forty-seven days after he arrived at the state hospital—on August 9, 2004—Andre was sent back to the Grayson County jail. Dr. Joseph Black, the chief psychiatrist in the hospital’s competency program, wrote a letter to Judge Fry explaining that Andre, who had been stabilized with the help of medication, was now competent to stand trial. Black attached a report in which he gave Andre a new diagnosis: substance-induced psychosis. In other words, Black believed that it was Andre’s abuse of alcohol and drugs that had made him psychotic. While he did not discount the possibility that Andre was mentally ill, Black believed that Andre had grossly exaggerated his symptoms as a strategy to evade punishment. “It is possible that he may engage in gestures or behaviors, including possibly those involving self-harm, in a bid to appear more seriously mentally ill than he is and to avoid the consequences of the current charges he faces,” Black added. That report would form the basis of the state’s case against Andre. 

Feigning mental illness, or “malingering,” in legal terms, isn’t unheard of. Malingering is determined by mental health experts who conduct multiple interviews with a defendant and examine his mental health history. Susan Stone, a psychiatrist and lawyer in Austin who regularly testifies in criminal cases and is a former ethics adviser for the state prison system, told me that she has seen criminals who hoped to receive lighter sentences keep detailed notes on how to fake auditory hallucinations. But while she has seen many ploys to avoid punishment, she said that Andre’s self-mutilation was atypical. “People don’t often pull out their eyes,” she explained matter-of-factly. Still, Hagood, Andre’s lead attorney, did not challenge the state hospital’s findings that his client was competent to stand trial. It was a decision that the veteran defense attorney—who was suffering from pancreatitis and appeared gaunt and ill during the legal proceedings—later conceded was a mistake. 

Not long before the trial began, Brown offered Andre a deal. If he pleaded guilty, he would be sentenced to life in prison with the chance of parole after forty years, thereby avoiding the possibility of a death sentence. His father and his aunt Doris encouraged him to take the deal. She had heard people around town say that the “SOB” who murdered Laura and her children should be hanged. “I begged him to take the plea bargain,” she told me. But Andre explained that his mother, in one of her few visits to the jail, had told him not to accept the offer. Jesus would take care of him, she had assured him. Andre followed her advice and pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. It is a strategy that rarely works, since jurors are often under the mistaken impression that a defendant who is found not guilty by reason of insanity is returned to the streets. In fact, the acquitted is committed to a psychiatric facility, where he will remain under court supervision for possibly decades, if not the remainder of his life. 

Paul Boren told me that at first he was conflicted about what punishment would be appropriate. Andre, after all, had spent much of his adolescence in the Boren home, and Paul had watched him grow up with Laura. As angry and heartbroken as Paul was about the deaths of his daughter and grandchildren, he also felt like he had lost a son-in-law. As a Christian, he said, he believes in “forgiveness and mercy and grace and all that.” So when Brown asked him how he felt about the possibility of the death penalty for Andre, Boren said he was in a quandary. “I just prayed,” he told me. “I said, ‘Lord, what would you do?’ As soon as I asked him, the scripture came to mind immediately where he said, ‘If you harm one of my little ones, it’s better for a millstone to be tied around your neck and cast into the sea.’ At that point, I was no longer unsure.”

On February 15, 2005, nearly a year after the murders, Andre’s trial began in the historic limestone courthouse on Sherman’s main square. Sitting at the defense table, Andre bore little resemblance to the friendly teenager who had started hanging around the Borens’ home nearly a decade earlier. He was much heavier than he had been—a side effect of the antipsychotic medication that coursed through his system, which was administered at the maximum dosage—and at times he appeared almost catatonic. He wore a black patch over his right eye and munched on sweets, popping Skittles in his mouth during some of the trial’s most stomach-churning testimony. When he wasn’t eating candy, he squeezed a red stress ball, until eventually one of its seams burst under the force of his grip. He was essentially useless to his attorneys, having provided them with little information about relatives or friends who might have helped explain his and his family’s long history of mental illness to the jury. “He was so medicated that I don’t remember him saying anything,” recalled Leah Eastep, a legal assistant who sat behind Andre each day in court. 

The emotional three-week trial captivated the small community. At times, the courtroom was so packed with spectators that a second courtroom had to be opened to accommodate them all. The state’s argument was simple: Andre was not crazy; he had become obsessed with Laura and knew precisely what he was doing when he set out to murder her. His drinking and constant pot smoking, along with his abuse of Coricidin, which was known to cause hallucinations, exacerbated whatever mental issues he had and fueled his rage. He pulled out his eye, one psychologist testified for the state, because his sudden withdrawal from alcohol and drugs in jail caused him to have a mental breakdown. Prosecutor Kerye Ashmore, who assisted Brown at trial, told the jury that Andre’s bizarre behavior in the years leading up to the killings was a desperate attempt to get the attention he craved. The murders, he said, were just another one of Andre’s ploys. “It’s the only thing that he thought he could possibly do in his life to be noticed, and he wanted to be noticed,” Ashmore told the jury. “He’d dye his hair green and say outlandish things just to get attention.” 

Jurors were shown gory crime scene footage of the children’s bodies next to their blood-spattered toys. They heard Andre describe in an audiotaped confession how he had reached his bare hand inside Laura’s chest after stabbing her and tried to pull out her heart. (Sequestered as witnesses, the Borens were largely absent during the trial and were spared many of its most horrific moments.) Andre’s lawyers argued that he had a long history of mental troubles, and they presented experts who testified that he was so psychotic at the time of his crime that he didn’t know right from wrong. In the end, jurors rejected the argument that Andre was too crazy to understand the gravity of his actions and returned a guilty verdict. “What worse crime could there be?” Brown asked during the ensuing punishment phase of the trial. “What crime more deserving of the death penalty could there be than the murder of those two babies and this mom?” After little more than an hour of deliberation, the jury decided to sentence Andre to death. 

Before he read the sentence, Judge Fry asked Andre if he had anything to say. Andre rose and turned to face the Borens, who had been allowed into the courtroom for sentencing. He spoke in a flat, impassive voice that was nearly inaudible. “I just want to say I am sorry for what I did. I wish I could take what I did back.”

Bobbie Peterson Cate, a young attorney who was second chair to Hagood in his defense of Andre, broke down when Judge Fry read the sentence. Andre reached over and awkwardly patted her on the back. “It’ll be okay,” he reassured her. 

“He didn’t grasp what had just happened,” Cate told me. “He was trying to comfort me because I was upset, not because he had been sentenced to death.” 

THE STINGING STENCH of bleach and chemical cleaning agents permeates the air of the Jester IV Unit, the psychiatric facility southwest of Houston where Andre is currently being held. Its wide hallways, which are illuminated by floor-to-ceiling windows and skylights, are quiet and mostly empty. Deer, bears, and other woodland creatures stare out from inmate-painted murals on the cement walls. One of three such units in the state’s penitentiary system, Jester IV houses up to 550 of the state’s most mentally disturbed and violent convicts. On any given day, Jester IV and the other two units are nearly filled to capacity. So acute is the need for psychiatric treatment for prisoners that if Texas built a fourth facility, it would be full as soon as it opened. Eight death row inmates, including Andre, are presently being held at Jester IV instead of the Polunsky Unit, in Livingston, where the rest of the 290 inmates who have been sentenced to die await execution.

Most inmates come to Jester IV for a few days in the throes of a psychiatric crisis. After intensive treatment, they are stabilized and sent back to their assigned units. Andre, however, has been at the unit since December 2008. He was sent there after he pulled out his remaining eye, rendering himself blind. When he first arrived, he told a psychologist that he believed Laura and the children were still alive. “I feel she isn’t dead, because I keep seeing her,” he said. “I want out of this false reality.”

Andre’s five-foot-eleven-inch frame is still a little bloated from the heavy doses of antipsychotic medication he takes. His eyelids are always closed, having been surgically shut, but when he lifts his eyebrows or smiles broadly, the vacant space behind his lids becomes evident. Though the medication helps mitigate his symptoms, he still seems to suffer from visual and auditory hallucinations. Sometimes he hears his parents fighting in his cell. He moved his bedroll down to the cement floor, where he claims the large spiders that used to land on his face don’t bother him anymore. Although he can no longer see, he has told his lawyer, Maurie Levin, that he has visions, and they are beautiful. In one, a golden light radiates from his forehead and illuminates his entire body. 

Levin, a co-director of the Capital Punishment Clinic at the University of Texas’s School of Law, said the simple fact that Andre is not suicidal is major progress. She and the rest of Andre’s legal team, however, believe he is still too mentally ill to understand why he is being punished and therefore not competent to be executed. Yet Texas courts have rejected their arguments. The Court of Criminal Appeals denied the claims on Andre’s behalf in 2009, about three months after he pulled out his other eye. In a statement that accompanied the court’s ruling, Judge Cathy Cochran conceded that Andre had a “severe mental illness” and that some evidence suggested “he did not know his conduct was wrong” at the time of the murders. But she noted that jurors who had heard all the evidence had determined that Andre did, in fact, know his conduct was wrong. She concluded that Andre “is clearly ‘crazy,’ but he is also ‘sane’ under Texas law.” 

And so Andre remains in legal limbo—considered too mentally ill to reside on death row but too sane to have his execution tabled. His legal team has appealed to a federal court, asking for an evidentiary hearing to determine whether his conviction and death sentence violate the constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment, arguing that his execution “would make a mockery of our system of justice. His blind, psychotic presence on Texas’ death row ridicules the system that led him there.” 

I wanted to talk to Andre myself, to try to glean some understanding of his present-day mental condition. But the Texas Department of Criminal Justice doesn’t allow interviews with inmates in its psychiatric and medical facilities; though I was allowed to tour Jester IV and see where Andre lives, I was not allowed to speak with him. John Hurt, a spokesman for the department, explained that the policy is meant to protect inmates “who may not be mentally competent to sit for an interview.” It was a remarkable response given that Andre had already been deemed competent for trial and is currently considered competent to be executed. 

But if Andre should not be executed, as his lawyers argue, then what ought to be done with him? “I would hope that he gets adequate mental health care in an adequate setting,” Levin said, adding, “To my knowledge, such facilities are nonexistent in the Texas prison system.” Wanda Banks, Andre’s Sunday school teacher, said she agrees that he should be “away from society.” The death penalty, though, doesn’t seem right. “He was a victim also,” she said. “I felt like our church, our whole community, failed him. Hasn’t he paid enough?” Paul Boren, however, told me he feels that much of Andre’s alleged mental illness is a charade, a strategy Andre has devised to avoid taking responsibility for his crime. Any mental illness Andre may have, the Borens believe, was brought on by his excesses with alcohol and drugs. “I hope he gets right with God,” Paul told me. “I would rather be standing beside him in heaven than him having to burn in hell for what he did.”

While he waits for the courts to decide his fate, Andre dwells within the confines of his mind. He told Levin on a recent visit, shortly before Christmas, that he fills his days dreaming of the things he will never get to do again, like working on his car or driving around with the windows down, his music playing loud. As he talked, he mimicked the thrumming sound of an engine, moving his hands like he was steering and shifting gears. When Levin visits, he sometimes sings for her, playing air guitar and scatting the beats with his lips. This time, he belted out a romantic R&B ballad, a song he dedicated to “Miranda.” A classmate of his from long ago, Miranda is a new obsession, and talk of her fills the dictated letters he sends to his father and his brother Danny. Her presence in his life is illusory; he has probably not seen her in more than fifteen years.

During that December visit, Levin asked Andre one of the questions that I had wanted to pose myself. “Why does the state want to execute you?” she inquired. 

“I feel like I have a very important purpose,” he told her. “A lot of souls depend on me. They don’t want me to fulfill my purpose. That would make me superior. They don’t want me to be superior. Because I’m black, but that’s not all of it.” He stopped for a moment to consider her question further. “I know I was convicted,” Andre added. “I don’t understand why I was convicted.”

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  • trulyblessed4sure

    Lord have mercy! Once I read the whole story I honestly stayed up half the night trying to understand how someone could honestly put this man on death row. Please know that I am deeply sorry for this horrific loss. This has to be one of the worst crimes of the century. What saddens me the most is that Andre and his siblings had no chance at life from birth. Then to find out that this woman had another son years after Andre…wow…this is what is called a cycle of doom. I pray that his baby brother gets the care, love and attention that the other poor kids did not get. These children should have been removed from the home as quickly as they were being born to these two people. Has anyone even addressed the fact that the
    little brother needs some intervention like asap. Or are
    we gonna wait for him to beg for help with what has to be most traumatic for him. He is old enough to see and hear what is going on around him…Take him away from this family before a jury will. I truly understand the anger that the victims family feel. I am 47 years old and no matter if I was getting the death sentence for a crime like this…no way would a sane killer physically pull his eyes out and eat them. Has anyone of the inmates on death row all over the world ever did the vile things he did to himself. Did anyone see the medical report about the injury to his private parts when he(andre) was a kid? Made me sick at the stomach. The blood line of this family was that most of them are mentally ill…mom, dad, siblings, grandparents…etc.

  • mmmdot

    Okay but who in their RIGHT MIND pulls out both of their eyeballs? EVER? I mean if you are trying to manipulate the system to live, wouldn’t you at least be able to want *SEE*? On top of that, didn’t he actually EAT his second eyeball? He’s been having auditory delusions since he was 10 years old. Schizophrenia (and many other mental illnesses) don’t even usually present themselves at that age! And since he had no reliable access to mental healthcare EVEN THOUGH HE WAS A CHILD, he began to self-medicate. This is something that many mentally ill people do. Look, I know you want revenge, but unlike Andre you should be capable of thinking logically.

    Mental illness is not a ‘manipulation’ and neither is all the suicidal and psychotic behavior detailed here– ESPECIALLY the nonsensical, insane eating of his own eye after he pulled it out of his own head and left himself blind. SMH. Obviously this is not a ploy. If you want him dead DESPITE the fact that he’s clearly psychotic and still suffering from hallucinations then just say so. But don’t pretend that he’s capable of manipulating people when he’s obviously out of his freaking mind, and don’t pretend that he’s lucid enough to make any rational ‘choices’. You may be able to rationalize yourself into sanctioning this, but don’t insult everyone else’s intelligence about exactly what’s going on here: you believe in executing mentally ill people who talk to themselves. Period.