Court Spares Bush a Politically Difficult Decision
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 18, 1999; Page A3
AUSTIN, Aug. 17—A Texas appeals court today delayed the scheduled execution of a convicted murderer diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, sparing Gov. George W. Bush the hard choice of whether to intervene in the case.
Mental health advocates and others had been pressuring Bush to grant a temporary reprieve, arguing that the man's psychiatric condition drove him to kill five people.
"I'm elated, absolutely elated," said Robert Hager, vice president of Capacity For Justice, a Houston nonprofit group seeking better treatment for mentally ill persons in Texas's criminal justice system.
Hager's organization and others had been fighting to stop tonight's planned execution of Larry Keith Robison, 42, who murdered five people, including an 11-year-old boy, in a stabbing-shooting rampage near Fort Worth in 1982. His supporters contend that he might not have committed the killings if he had received adequate psychiatric treatment when his condition was diagnosed, and that because of his illness, he should not be held legally responsible for the crimes.
"We're back in the game," Hager said, referring to the legal and public relations campaign to save Robison's life. Today's decision by Texas's Court of Criminal Appeals will delay the execution for at least a month and possibly much longer, lawyers in the case said.
For Bush, a self-described "compassionate conservative" and the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination, Robison's case has a sensitive political aspect. Texas law does not permit the governor to commute a death sentence unless the state Board of Pardons and Paroles recommends he do so. But he can issue a one-time, 30-day reprieve. Robison's supporters had been pressuring Bush to grant such a reprieve, to allow them more time to challenge Robison's death sentence in court.
If Bush were to have allowed the execution to proceed, Robison's advocates would have mocked his "compassion," casting him as unenlightened about mental illness. But if Bush were to have granted a 30-day reprieve, it would have been his first since becoming governor in January 1995. Texas has executed 99 prisoners in that time and leads all other states by far with 184 executions since the Supreme Court allowed resumption of capital punishment in 1976.
In a 5-4 ruling, the Court of Criminal Appeals held that Robison is entitled to a hearing in state District Court to determine whether he is mentally fit to be executed under Texas law, which requires that a condemned inmate be coherent enough to understand the nature of the punishment.
Bush's office said he would have no comment on the ruling.
A trial jury rejected Robison's insanity defense in 1983 and the pardons board last week denied his clemency petition by a 17-0 vote. In an interview with an Associated Press reporter before today's court decision, Robison said he did not fear the lethal injection, then scheduled for 6 p.m.
"I'm real excited about it and glad to be leaving here," he said.
Robison's mother, Lois Robison, a retired elementary school teacher, has campaigned for years to save her son's life.
"Larry was the kind of boy that every mother dreams of having," she said in a statement.
She said he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at a Fort Worth hospital when he was 21, but the hospital would not treat him because the family lacked insurance. She said two other hospitals each treated him briefly and discharged him because he was "not violent."
"The first and only violence he was accused of was killing five people," she wrote. He murdered the five victims in two adjacent cottages in Lake Worth, Tex., including his 31-year-old male housemate, who was decapitated and sexually mutilated.
© 1999 The Washington Post Company