The Lieutenant Governor’s Press Room adjoins the west wall of the Senate chamber, so debate in the chamber often becomes the background to press briefings. Such was the case when Lois and Ken Robison pleaded yet again with the state to spare the life of their son, while Senator David Bernsen advanced his eloquent and thoughtful arguments concerning the parental-notification abortion bill that would pass later the same day.
Above the subtext of judicial bypass for minors seeking abortions droning, the Robisons attempted to use the Capitol press corps to convey a message to anyone who might listen: the Governor, the Board of Pardons and Paroles, the public.
“We probably couldn’t have picked a worse day,” said David Atwood of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, when he observed that only one reporter had shown up. The Senate debate on Florence Shapiro’s parental-notification bill, Atwood said, seemed to have every reporter in the Capitol occupied
Atwood’s observation was informed by an activist’s belief that change is still within reach – and the idea that if you call a press conference, the press will come. But executions are no longer news in Texas, although when Larry Robison’s date of execution is finally set, there will be some media interest in the novelty of executing a man whose mental illness raises serious doubts about his responsibility for the crime he committed.
Robison had been diagnosed as schizophrenic three years before committing the first crime he was ever charged with. When he was twenty-one, he was diagnosed, hospitalized briefly, then discharged from Huguley Psychiatric Center in Fort Worth because his family’s insurance would no longer cover him. He was taken to the John Peter Smith County Hospital where he was hospitalized for thirty days, then discharged because he was not violent and because the hospital needed the bed space. He was then taken to the Veteran’s Hospital in Waco, where he was hospitalized for thirty days and again discharged, with a warning from psychiatrists there that he would get worse without treatment. Four years later, he killed five people in Lake Worth.
His first trial was overturned on appeal, with the Second Court of Appeals ruling that he did not get a fair trial because the issue of insanity was not properly addressed. At his second trial, his attorney tried to present evidence that included his medical records and a family history of mental illness, including documentation that his natural father (who died of a brain tumor when Larry was two years old), his brother, an uncle, and a grandfather, all had been hospitalized with paranoid schizophrenia – the same diagnoses that Larry Robison received four years before he took the lives of five people in Lake Worth.
So there stood Lois Robison, wearing a white shirt that reads: MOTHER OF A MENTALLY ILL DEATH ROW PRISONER, again pleading for a meeting with the Governor, or a hearing before the Board of Pardons and Paroles. Robison, a retired third-grade teacher, reads from a printed text, although she is so familiar with the story that she easily goes on and off her script, which she obligingly hands me when she is finished reading. Beside her sits her husband, Ken, a college instructor. Her daughter, Carol, also mentally ill, rocks back and forth and moves her legs in odd perseverating movements, clutching the script she will stand and read with virtually no emotional affect, before returning to the psychiatric group residence where she will likely spend the rest of her life:
I am Carol Robison and Larry Robison is my big brother. He is mentally ill and I am mentally ill….I never got violent or committed a bad crime because I got help. Larry didn’t get any help or treatment, so he never got well. If Larry could have had the right treatment and programs, he wouldn’t be on Death Row now. I love my brother. Please don’t kill him.
The entire protracted presentation, held for one reporter and the camera of Los Angeles documentary filmmaker Micki Dickoff, is enough to make a stone weep. In the current political climate, Larry Robison has little chance of receiving a commuted sentence – particularly when commutation is a variable in the larger equation of a presidential campaign that will have to shore up the Governor’s support among right-wing voters in Republican caucuses and primaries. Toward the end the press conference Senator Florence Shapiro’s voice from the Senate chamber replaces a voice that seems to belong to Senator Royce West, and Lois Robison slips into the future tense – anticipating her son’s execution.
Situated some fifty feet beneath the St. Augustine grass and rosebeds on the northeast corner of the Capitol grounds, the House Appropriations Committee hearing room is the largest hearing room in the huge underground complex. Two semicircular tiers accommodate thirty-one committee members, and one hundred theater seats are almost always three-fourths occupied by lobbyists and witnesses. It is a labor-intensive committee, skillfully run by San Angelo Democrat Rob Junell and stacked with some of the brightest members of the House, such as Scott Hochberg, Garnet Coleman, Sylvester Turner, and Vilma Luna. As the seats for spectators and witnesses are often filled, the audio portion of the meeting is piped out into the lobby with sufficient volume that committee proceedings are clearly audible above the buzz of lobbyists discussing testimony or making weekend plans.
At 7:45 a.m. on the Friday of the week that the Robisons made their case in an empty room, Appropriations is packed. Dr. Kyle Janek, a physician who represents a West University and Bellaire House district, is making the case for the state’s purchase of anti-psychotic drugs. It’s a small component of the Mental Health Mental Retardation Budget, and Janek is trying to explain the state’s expenditure to fellow Houston Republican Talmadge Heflin:
“Hopefully many of the schizophrenics in prison are not just in prison because of their schizophrenia. I’m going to assume for a minute that anybody who is in prison committed a crime not because they were schizophrenic. Anybody who committed a crime because of a schizophrenic episode, most likely they are in the State Hospital. Many schizophrenics commit serious crimes, but they commit them under the fog of their schizophrenic episodes. They commit murder. … They hear voices from above from above saying ‘go kill that person, that person’s going to kill you if you don’t kill them first.’ These people commit serious crimes under the fog of their schizophrenia. It’s my hope that these medications will get them cleared up and get them back to productive life….
“So, for those schizophrenics who have committed crimes, either petty or very serious, it’s my hope to get them better, get them back into productive lives, and then get somebody else on the waiting list who may be out committing serious or petty crimes into the medication program.”
Finally Heflin, who is often three steps behind any fast-moving policy discussion, seems to get it. There would be money saved, he says, not in state mental institutions, all of which have long waiting lists for patients, but in county jail and prison budgets, as people receive treatment for mental illness and thereby stay out of jail. “We have jail space,” Heflin said. “It’s only in mental hospitals that we don’t have space.”
“That,” Dr. Janek says, “is correct.”