HOUSTON -- Plagued by mental illness, Texas death row inmate Andre Thomas started hearing voices when he was 9 years old and first attempted suicide when he was 10, his attorneys say.
Thomas’ psychosis, filled with religious delusions and hallucinations, became worse as he grew older. His family — beset by a long history of mental illness, addiction and poverty — was unable to help.
His lawyers say in March 2004, when he was 21, Thomas’ mental illness erupted in a burst of horrific violence in his hometown of Sherman, Texas. He fatally stabbed his estranged wife Laura Christine Boren, 20, their 4-year-old son Andre Lee and her 13-month-old daughter Leyha Marie Hughes, cutting out the hearts of the two children. He later told police God had instructed him to commit the killings and that he believed all three were demons.
Thomas was sentenced to death for killing the little girl after jurors rejected his insanity defense. Prosecutors argued that he knew his conduct was wrong and exacerbated his mental condition with drug use. He has spent the last 15 years at a unit south of Houston for the state’s most mentally ill prisoners. The heavily medicated Thomas, now 39, is also blind. Twice since the killings, he has gouged out his eyes, eating one of them to ensure that the government could not hear his thoughts, his attorneys said.
Thomas’ attorneys say he will never be competent for his April 5 execution. They, along with over 100 faith leaders and dozens of mental health professionals on Wednesday asked Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute his sentence to life in prison or to grant a reprieve so the courts can determine his competency for execution.
“Gov. Abbott has the power to stop the spectacle of prison guards leading a blind, mentally incompetent, delusional man to the death chamber,” said attorney Maurie Levin.
But authorities say Thomas’ victims and their families should not be forgotten in this debate and that if Thomas is determined competent, his execution should go forward. The killings of Boren and her children shocked Sherman, a city of about 45,000 residents 65 miles (105 kilometers) north of Dallas.
“A jury has spoken about what justice should be in this case. We are not going to ignore that,” said J. Kerye Ashmore, with the Grayson County District Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted the case.
A spokeswoman for Abbott did not respond to an email sent Friday seeking comment. Abbott has granted clemency to only one death row inmate since taking office in 2015.
The Supreme Court has prohibited the death penalty for the intellectually disabled, but not for people with serious mental illness. However, it has ruled that a person must be competent to be executed.
Thomas’ attorneys will have to file a court motion asking that his competency be reviewed. A judge would ultimately decide the issue.
His attorneys say prison records show that as recently as December, Thomas “still hallucinate(s) constantly,” including “voices ‘from a spiritual prison’ and seeking ‘angels.’”
“He is one of the most mentally ill prisoners in Texas history,” Levin said.
Thomas’ attorneys have said his trial was also problematic because jurors who said they opposed interracial marriage were allowed to serve. Thomas is Black and his estranged wife was white. The U.S. Supreme Court last year declined to hear an appeal on this issue.
Ashmore said the standard to determine if someone is competent to be executed is not “whether he is mentally ill or has hallucinations” but figuring out if an inmate understands why he is being put to death or that his execution is imminent.
Joe Brown, the former Grayson County district attorney who led the prosecution, said this has been a difficult case for everyone involved.
“For many people I hear from, it does not matter whether he understands that he is being punished or not. They believe a crime with those facts demands death. To others ... the death penalty is never justified. Our legal system does the best it can in that difficult situation,” said Brown, who is now in private practice in Sherman.
The Texas Legislature is set to debate a bill that would make people with severe mental illness ineligible for the death penalty. Similar bills failed to become law in 2019 and 2021.
Kentucky and Ohio have approved such measures in recent years.
“It would be very troubling to execute Mr. Thomas at the exact time that the (Texas) House is once again considering exempting people like him from being executed, said Greg Hansch, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-Texas. If such a bill became Texas law, it wouldn’t be retroactive.
Rev. Jaime Kowlessar, a pastor from Dallas who is among the more than 100 faith leaders asking to stop the execution, said putting Thomas to death would serve no legitimate purpose.
“We pray that Gov. Abbott will choose the path of healing and grace by sparing Mr. Thomas’ life,” Kowlessar said.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at https://twitter.com/juanlozano70.