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Just how crazy must a person be to be ruled incompetent for execution in the United States? Being profoundly mentally ill is not enough. You have to be deemed legally “insane.”
At trial, the insanity defense generally hinges on a person’s inability to distinguish right from wrong or understand the “nature and quality” of his act. In the context of an impending execution, insanity means you cannot rationally comprehend that you are being put to death as a consequence of the crime you committed.
In 2005, a Texas jury found that Andre Thomas, the subject of my in-depth companion piece (see box below), was not insane at the time of his crime.
Read Marc Bookman’s essay: “How Crazy Is Too Crazy to Be Executed?” (Or listen to actor Mike Farrell read it.)
To put this in context, consider that Thomas was then, and still is, a delusional paranoid schizophrenic who hears voices—from God, he believes—telling him to do things. He carved out the organs of his four-year-old son, his estranged wife, and her 13-month-old daughter, and took them home in his pockets, believing that this would kill the demons inside them. In the days following his arrest, he insisted to a jailhouse nurse that his victims were still alive.
And that’s not even the weirdest part of the story.
Thomas’ case is on appeal in federal court, and as it stands, the courts cannot even address the question of whether he is competent to be executed until he is about to be. But should someone as obviously crazy as Andre Thomas be facing execution at all? Over the past decade, US courts have barred the death penalty for the intellectually disabled and for juveniles—the Supreme Court found that they have less culpability due to their lower mental functioning and immaturity. Many legal observers believe that barring the death penalty for the severely mentally ill, given their dissociation from reality, is the next frontier in capital jurisprudence.
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