A convicted Texas murderer diagnosed years ago with paranoid schizophrenia is scheduled to be executed Friday night despite protests from mental health advocates, who have tried to put political pressure on Gov. George W. Bush in a bid to gain clemency for the prisoner.
Larry Keith Robison, 42, whose planned execution already has been delayed once by a court because of questions about his mental health, is one of seven inmates on Texas's lethal-injection list for January--an unusually busy month even in the nation's leading death-penalty state. Three of the prisoners already are dead, and the rest are scheduled to be executed before the end of next week.
Bush, who was in Iowa today campaigning for the Republican presidential nomination, may grant a one-time, 30-day reprieve to a condemned inmate, but may not commute a death sentence unless Texas's 18-member pardons board, made up of Bush appointees, recommends that he do so. Bush has stopped only one planned execution since taking office in January 1995, allowing 116 others to go forward, and there was no indication that he intends to intervene in Robison's case.
"In Iowa, there is no death penalty, and in the 2000 presidential race, Robison's case tests the borders of compassion," the Virginia-based National Alliance for the Mentally Ill said in a statement today, alluding to Bush's campaign theme of "compassionate conservatism." In a separate public letter to the governor and the pardons board, the group said commuting Robison's sentence to life without parole would "protect the public safety and serve the interests of justice."
Robison, whose insanity defense was rejected by a trial jury, was convicted of murdering five people, including an 11-year-old boy, in a stabbing and shooting rampage near Fort Worth in 1982. It was his first violent offense.
With opinion polls consistently measuring public support for capital punishment at 70 percent to 80 percent, Bush has faced few if any hard questions about Texas's brisk execution pace since launching his White House bid. As for Robison's case, Bush spokesman Mike Jones said today that it is not the governor's place to make judgments about the mental competency of inmates.
"Those are issues to be dealt with by the courts," Jones said.
Seven executions would make this month the busiest for Texas's death chamber since eight inmates were given lethal injections in May 1997 and eight more were executed the following month.
Robison came within hours of lethal injection on Aug. 17, before Texas's Court of Criminal Appeals issued a stay of execution. The panel ordered a lower court to hold a hearing on whether Robison was mentally competent to be executed under Texas law, which says that a prisoner must be coherent enough to understand the nature of the punishment as it is being inflicted.
While lawyers have sought to save him, Robison has said he is eager to die, telling a reporter in August, "I'm real excited about it." After a competency hearing in November, a Fort Worth judge found him mentally fit to be put to death. In an unusual accommodation of Robison's spiritual beliefs, the judge granted his request to be executed on Jan. 21, when the moon will be nearly full.
In August, while lawyers were seeking the appeals court stay, mental health advocates and Robison's mother were lobbying the governor's office and the pardons board for a sentence commutation based on Robison's history of mental illness.
They contended that he might not have committed the 1982 slayings if he had received the proper psychiatric treatment after his paranoid schizophrenia was diagnosed in the late 1970s. They blamed the state for Robison's lack of treatment, saying mental health services in Texas are inadequate.
Heather Cobb, a spokeswoman for the Virginia-based National Mental Health Association, said today that in a 1997 study by the group, Texas ranked 42nd among the 50 states in per capita spending on mental health services.
"It is when people in need of services are not able to access treatment because of barriers to care that the likelihood of an act of violence increases," the group told the pardons board in a letter last summer. "From the evidence we have been presented, we believe that is the case with Mr. Larry Robison."
The clemency request was rejected in August. In its letter to Bush and the pardons board today, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill urged reconsideration. "Please do not compound the tragedy of [Robison's] crimes and the failures of the mental health system . . . with the cruelty of criminal justice without the compassion," wrote the group's director, Laurie M. Flynn.
Jones, the Bush spokesman, said the governor has pushed for increased funding for mental health services and is not responsible for the alleged inadequacy of Robison's early treatment.
"You'd have to talk to the people who were governors in the '70s about what the state was doing back then," he said.