Are Andre Thomas and Andrea Yates so different?
Both were severely mentally ill and hearing voices before they killed family members in what they said were attempts to save them from evil forces. Yet Thomas, found guilty of capital murder, is set to be executed in four months while Yates, found not guilty by reason of insanity, remains confined to a state mental hospital, where she will likely live out her days.
Thomas is the death row inmate who is so mentally ill that he has gouged out both of his eyes, swallowing one of them, in the years following the 2004 murders of his estranged wife, their 4-year-old son and her 1-year-old daughter.
Yates is the former Houston-area housewife who, while suffering from postpartum psychosis in 2001, drowned her five children, ages 6 months to 7, in the family bathtub.
The parallels between the two cases illustrate the troubling inconsistencies in the Texas criminal justice system when it comes to adjudicating the mentally ill. And they serve to sharpen this newspaper’s stance on why the state should not be in the business of putting people to death.
The U.S. Supreme Court in October declined to review Thomas’ case, prompting state District Judge Jim Fallon of Grayson County last month to set Thomas’ execution date for April 5.
Thomas stabbed to death his estranged wife, Laura Boren, 20, their son, Andre Jr., and Boren’s daughter, Leyha Hughes. Thinking all three were possessed, he removed part of Boren’s lung and the children’s hearts. He then stabbed himself in the chest and laid down beside his dead wife to die. But when he didn’t, he stuffed the organs in his pocket and walked home.
Thomas, who had a long history of delusions and previous suicide attempts, almost immediately turned himself in and confessed to the killings. He told police he believed God wanted him to kill them.
Two days before the killings, Thomas went to the emergency room for treatment after stabbing himself in the chest. After a doctor suspected mental illness and ordered a psychiatric evaluation, Thomas slipped away from the hospital without receiving one. While in custody just a few days after the killings, ranting and delusional, he gouged out one of his eyes.
Yet, less than a year later, Thomas was deemed competent to stand trial for capital murder. The jury rejected his insanity defense, which had been challenged by prosecutors on the grounds that his mental illness was worsened by voluntary drug abuse. In upholding his conviction, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals noted that Thomas was clearly “crazy,” but also “sane” under Texas law. The standard in this state is whether a defendant knew the difference between right and wrong at the time of the offense.
Particularly troubling is that Thomas, a Black man, was convicted by an all-white jury. Boren was white, and Thomas’ appellate lawyers contended that some members of the jury had been wrongly empaneled after expressing opposition to interracial marriage. It was after being convicted and sentenced to death that Thomas removed his other eye and ate it.
Andrea Yates also had a history of severe mental illness and suicide attempts dating back to 1999, and in June 2001 she held each of her five children underwater shortly after her husband left for work.
In the months before the killings, the former nurse had been hospitalized twice after being diagnosed with postpartum psychosis, and her doctor said she should not be left alone. After her last discharge, Yates’ condition worsened; she had been scratching bald spots on her scalp and later reported that she was hearing voices speaking directly to her through the television. After waiting until her husband left for work, Yates drowned each of the children one by one, laying all but the oldest side by side in a bed. She then called 911.
Similar to Thomas, Yates immediately confessed after the killings, saying later that she was trying to save the children from going to hell. In 2002, after being found competent to stand trial for capital murder, a jury rejected her insanity defense. It sentenced her to life in prison, however, sparing her the death penalty.
But three years later, her conviction was reversed on appeal after it was discovered that a forensic psychiatrist gave false testimony. In 2006, a new jury found her not guilty by reason of insanity. Since 2007, Yates has resided in the Kerrville State Hospital, where her lawyer, George Parnham, has said she prefers to remain.
Thomas and Yates are two severely mentally ill people who committed unfathomable acts but whose cases have had dramatically different outcomes. Maurie Levin, one of Thomas’ lawyers, said his defense team will continue to fight to spare Thomas’ life.
“He is one of the most mentally ill people ever to be on death row,” she told us. “We are making the forceful case that he is incompetent to be executed.”
That a case to save him from death row even has to be made is wrong. In 2007, this newspaper took a stance against the death penalty, saying it couldn’t reconcile “the fact that it is both imperfect and irreversible.” We long ago lost confidence that inherently flawed human beings can rightly mete out the ultimate punishment.
The cases of Andre Thomas and Andrea Yates, when looked at side by side through the same lens of justice and humanity, reinforce our concern.