To execute the mentally ill violates the eighth amendment on cruel and unusual punishment but what constitutes as mentally ill in the eyes of the law? How insane does one have to be to avoid being executed?
On 27 March, 2004, in Grayson County, Texas, Andre Thomas broke into this home of his 20-year-old estranged wife, Laura Thomas, who was at home with their 4-year-old son, Andre Lee. Laura’s 13-month-old daughter, Leyha Marie Hughes, was also inside the home. Laura had since moved on from Andre with Bryant Hughes, the father of Leyha.
Once inside the home, Thomas stabbed the young family to death using a variety of knives so that he would not “cross contaminate” their blood and “allow the demons inside them to live.” As the lifeless bodies lay before him, Thomas cut out a portion of Laura’s lung (believing it was her heart) and cut out the hearts of the two children.
The pathologist, Sheila Spotswood, would later describe the gruesome injuries that the victim’s suffered. She said that Laura had suffered a large V-shaped stab wound to her chest as well as many other stab wounds. She said that young mother suffered from internal stab wounds too and that the stabs were delivered with such force that they went through her ribs. The children suffered similar wounds. In addition, all of their ribs had been cut open.
She revealed that their death would have required “more than one stabbing motion” meaning that the victim would have been alive long enough to know exactly what was going on. Their deaths would have been excruciating. 1
Beside the bodies, Thomas left a one dollar bill which was folded lengthwise, exposing the pyramid with the eye in the middle. It was said that he had been obsessing over the meaning of the pyramid in the dollar bill and that he believed that the eye was evil. Afterwards, he lay down beside his deceased estranged wife and stabbed himself in the chest. When he didn’t die like he had expected, he collected the organs, stuffed them into his pocket and walked back home.
Upon arriving home, he left the three knives in the sink and changed out of his bloody clothing, leaving them in a pile on his bedroom floor. He then called Laura’s parents and left the following voice mail:
“Um, Sherry, this is Andre. I need y’alls help, something bad is happening to me and it keeps happening and I don’t know what’s going on. I need some help, I think I’m in hell. I need help. Somebody needs to come and help me. I need help bad. I’m desperate. I’m afraid to go to sleep. So when you get this message, come by the house, please. Hello?”2
Afterwards, Thomas told his girlfriend, Carman Hayes, and his cousin, Isaiah Gibbs, what he had done. When Hayes asked why, he explained that he believed Laura was Jezebel and that his son was the Antichrist. Little Leyha was the embodiment of pure evil, he contended. Thomas had a fascination with religion, particularly the book of Revelation. His girlfriend said how Thomas believed he was the devil and believed that if he could stop himself for talking for 24 hours then God would forgive him. To do this, he would frequently place duct tape over his mouth.
In the run up to the murders, Thomas had attempted suicide on several occasions. Just two days before he broke into Laura’s home, he stabbed himself and walked to the ER at the Texoma Medical Center. He told the doctor he was trying to “cross over into heaven.” He was referred to the mental health unit and an emergency detention order to hold him against his will was filed. While staff members waited for the judge to sign the order, Thomas wandered out of the building. There is no evidence that officers even searched for him. The next time they would see him would be two days later, after he slaughtered his family.
After confessing what he had done to his cousin and girlfriend, Thomas handed himself in to police.
Just a couple of days after his arrest, Thomas plucked out his eyeball with his bare hands while in his jail cell. He then quoted the verse Mark 9:47: “And if it causes you to sin, pluck it out. It is better for you if you enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell.” He was taken to a hospital where his eyeball was put on ice but it couldn’t be reattached.
Removing your own eyeball isn’t an easy feat… In fact, Dr. Robert Burlingame who treated Thomas said that he had only ever heard of one other case where someone intentionally removed their own eyeball. Afterwards, he had to wear mittens and restraints 24/7 to prevent him from harming himself. Prison staff also took away his bible.3
In the run up to his trial, Thomas would often be heard having conversations with himself and laughing manically while in his cell at the Grayson County Jail. Natalie Sims, the head nurse, said he often spoke about his deceased estranged wife in the present sense and didn’t seem to understand that she and the children were dead.
During his trial, the defence team, R.J. Hagood and Bobbie Peterson, asked the jury to take into consideration Thomas’ self-mutilation. They argued that Thomas was insane.
Hagood put forward the fact that Thomas was once a bright young man with a promising future. He recounted how he had been accepted into the gifted and talented program at Sherman schools. According to Hagood, however, Thomas was plagued with mental illness which ultimately led to his downfall. He declared that Thomas’ family knew that he was mentally ill from the age of 10 when he slit his own wrists. Just three years later, he attempted suicide once again when he sawed at his arm with a butcher knife. Soon afterwards, Thomas started to dabble in petty crimes.
Throughout his tempestuous life, his mother was nowhere to be seen. She led a transient life and offered no support to her children. In fact, when Andre first met his probation officer, he did so alone. His mother would miss the appointments and often tell her son she wished he had been aborted. Eventually his mother moved away, leaving Thomas in a juvenile detention facility. “The justice system would become Andre’s surrogate parent, keeping tabs on his whereabouts and overseeing his affairs.”4
On the other hand, the prosecution argued that Thomas was a man who refuses to take responsibility for his wrongdoings and allegedly had a history of feigning mental illness to diminish responsibility. During the trial, Thomas’ earlier probation officer told the court that he had scratches his arm and said he was contemplating suicide in an attempt to get out of going to boot camp.
“I will ask you to say that Andre’s life is worth saving,” Hagwood said during closing statements. He asked the jury to consider Thomas’ mental illness and to overcome with their kindness the brutality that Thomas showed on that fateful afternoon. Peterson said that the death penalty should be reserved for the worst of the worst and that Thomas should be placed somewhere that he could finally get the psychological help that he needed.
“Don’t kill him for being so sick, so mentally ill that he took the lives of three innocent people. It will not make their pain go away. It will not bring Laura, Juicy or Leyha back. All killing Andre Thomas will do is cause more pain for innocent victims. Ladies and gentlemen, do not kill Andre Thomas because he missed his heart by a millimetre when he tried to die as well. Don’t kill Andre Thomas because he lived,” begged Peterson. 5
Ultimately, the jury decided with the prosecution; it took them just 45 minutes to decide that Andre Thomas must pay with his life. He was sentenced to death.
Judge James Fry asked Thomas if he had anything to say. Thomas looked towards Laura’s family and said: “I want to say I am sorry for what I have done. I wish I could take it back. I am terribly sorry. Laura’s father, Paul Boren, replied to Thomas and told him he should stop seeking forgiveness from his victims because he destroyed their ability to forgive when he stole their lives. He also told him that the only person who can forgive him now is God, adding he hopes he finds forgiveness “before they put that needle in your arm.” He also said that he hopes Thomas will take being executed “like a man” and that he would “realize it was what you deserve.””6
Thomas was sent to the Polunsky Unit, where Texas Death Row inmates are housed. Over the forthcoming years, Thomas continued with his suicide attempts. In July of 2008, he slashed his throat with a razor which required stitches.
Three months later, he gouged out his remaining eyeball and ate it.
He said he had done so because he didn’t want the government to read his thoughts. He also believed the government had his other eyeball and told prison staff that he wanted it back. Afterwards, he was sent to the Jester IV Unit which is a state prison psychiatric unit.
Thomas currently sits in a small cell with his eyelids surgically closed over empty sockets awaiting his execution. He cannot see. He cannot read. He cannot watch TV. He is left with nothing but his own thoughts.
One wonders if Thomas had received parental support, would he have gone down a different path? At one point in his life, he excelled at school and took pride in learning. Why wasn’t that nurtured? What if he had received the mental health care that he had evidently needed from such a young age? Would Laura, Andre Jr. and Leyha still be alive?
While mental illness certainly does not excuse the heinous murders, it offers an explanation. Reading about the Andre Thomas case is a descent into darkness. The bizarre nature of Thomas’ crime combined with his behaviour begs the question “Is Andre Thomas sane enough to be executed?”
Texas certainly thinks so as they continue to forcefully pursue his execution.
- Herald Democrat, 17 February, 2005 – “Evidence of Brutal Death”
- The Dallas Morning News, 4 March, 2013 – “The Things We Leave Out Of Editorials But Wish We Hadn’t”
- Herald Democrat, 24 May, 2005 – “Andre Thomas’ Motion for a New Trial Denied”
- Mother Jones, 12 February, 2013 – “How Crazy is Too Crazy to be Executed?”
- Herald Democrat, 8 March, 2005 – “Thomas Convicted of Capital Murder”
- Herald Democrat, 13 March, 2005 – “Sentence is ‘what you deserve’”