Trouble in Mind

How should criminals who are mentally ill be punished?
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

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