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Execution vs. treating ills

Before the end of August, if all goes as scheduled in Texas, George W. Bush will have presided over exactly 100 executions in his six-year tenure as governor.

While it would be unfair to hold him solely responsible for a policy that enjoys bipartisan support in Texas, one of the six executions scheduled for this month will present the governor with an important question:

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Is it public policy in Texas to execute someone whose crime is the result of mental incompetence?

Since resuming in 1982, executions have occured so often in Texas (184 through Aug. 12) that they've become political background noise, failing to generate headlines unless the perpetrator or victim has some particular distinction.

The execution of Larry Robison should be a sobering exception.

Robison is scheduled to be executed tomorrow for the 1982 murder of Bruce Gardner, near Fort Worth. The crime is not in question, but the evidence is abundant that Robison was completely insane at the time of the murder. He killed four more people the same night, in a brutal manner he believed was dictated by voices in his head, the clocks in his room, and the apocalyptic stories of the Old Testament. He readily confessed to the killings.

Four prosecutors developing the case were willing to accept a plea of insanity and permanent confinement to a mental institution. They were overruled by the Tarrant County prosecutor. The evidence of Robison's madness was largely ruled inadmissible so the juries in both his trials heard almost none of it.

As his family can easily document, the deafness of the state of Texas to Robison's paranoid schizophrenia was nothing new.

The Robisons spent the years preceding the 1982 murder fighting for Larry's sanity, and have spent the years since fighting for his life.

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As a teenager he began acting strangely, hearing voices. He joined the Army but was discharged after a year - only much later was the family told that he had become convinced he could control people and objects with his mind. It was easier for the Army to get rid of him than help him. Robison's condition continued to deteriorate, and at one point, he spent six months in jail because his parents could not find a hospital to admit him. Robison himself, in his more desperately lucid moments, begged them to help him.

Again and again the Robisons were told: "He's not on your insurance - he doesn't have his own." "We can't commit him for more than 30 days." "He's not your problem." "He's never been violent. Unless he does something violent, there's nothing we can do."

When Robison committed murder, he finally gave the state of Texas something to do.

Lois Robison recites her son's harrowing story quietly, without hesitation, although with the execution date so near, her voice occasionally breaks. She and her husband, both teachers, have made a small crusade of defending their son's life, personally and through their work with TX CURE (Texas Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants), an organization devoted to better treatment for prison inmates.

"Texas doesn't take care of its mentally ill," she says. "A lot of states don't, but most all of them in the nation take better care of them than Texas does. [Texas doesn't] want to put out the money to do preventative treatment. [It] would rather spend the money on executions."

In Robison's case, that seems quite literally true. Texas consistently falls within the bottom 10 states in per capita expenditures on mental health. Texas spends $2 million prosecuting the average capital murder case. Imagine what that kind of funding could have done for the mentally ill in Texas since 1982.

Robison's case is certainly horrible, but is it exceptional? Only in degree. In addition to Robison, five Texas death-row inmates will be executed in August. In three of those cases, the inmates exhibit evidence of severe mental illness and/or retardation.

Recently Mrs. Robison told her son's story to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles. Some members seemed interested, she said. Two even thanked her for her testimony.

"It should never have come to this," she says. "If we had been able to get him the treatment that we begged for, and he begged for, then these people wouldn't have died. It's basically down to mercy."

The board members are reviewing Robison's final petition for clemency and will decide today or tomorrow whether to recommend clemency to the governor, who appointed them, and who has the authority to order one 30-day stay of execution.

Larry's mother says she still has hope. Perhaps the Board and the governor will choose compassion and reason over ideology and political expediency. But the record of the Board, Bush, and the state of Texas, gives little reason to think so.

*Michael King is co-editor of The Texas Observer, a biweekly political journal in Austin, Texas.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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