Killing Larry Robison


Thus far in 1999, the state of Texas has executed sixteen people. That’s a pace likely to exceed the twenty executions of last year, but short of the record thirty-seven in 1997. Another dozen executions are currently scheduled, through November, by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Since resuming in 1982, the executions occur so often now (a grand total of 180) they’ve become political background noise, failing to generate headlines unless the story carries some particular distinction in perpetrator or victim.

A few weeks ago, for example, Canadian citizen Stanley Faulder was executed, despite protests from the Canadian government and even Secretary of State Madeleine Albright that Faulder had never been accorded the consular rights due him him under international law. The members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles and the Governor who appoints them were unmoved. When asked about the case, George W. Bush responded solemnly, “If you come to Texas, don’t kill anybody,” later voluntarily repeating that lesson after reading aloud to a group of schoolchildren. Neither the children nor the reporters in attendance asked the Governor if he therefore believed the state of Texas is exempt from the rule of law it imposes on its citizens — or whether foreign governments should henceforth feel free to ignore laws which would otherwise protect the rights of American citizens abroad.

The international issue was only one of several troubling in the Faulder case, including purchased testimony and evidence that Faulder perhaps suffered from mental illness or organic brain damage. And as recently reported in the political newsletter Counterpunch, during a youthful stint in a Canadian prison, Faulder, having asked for psychiatric help, was instead subjected to experimental drug treatment with doses of LSD, under research funded by the Canadian Defense Department and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. It is worth noting, of course, that even had Faulder’s attorneys been able to prove mental illness, it might not have saved his life. Despite popular legend to the contrary, the number of capital defendants who make successful claims of insanity is virtually nil. And this year the Texas Legislature rejected an attempt to ban the execution of the mentally retarded, at least partly because of the resistance of the Governor.

Which brings us to the case of Larry Robison, scheduled to be executed August 17 for the brutal 1982 murder of Bruce Gardner, near Fort Worth. The evidence is abundant that Robison was completely insane at the time of Gardner’s murder. He killed four more people the same night, beheading and mutilating his roommate in a manner he believed was being dictated by the voices in his head, the clocks in his room, the apocalyptic stories of the Old Testament. He readily confessed to the killings, and the four prosecutors developing the case were willing to accept a plea of insanity and permanent confinement to a mental institution. They were overruled by the Tarrant County prosecutor, and in court, the evidence of Robison’s madness was ruled, for the most part, inadmissible — the jury in both his first and second trials heard almost none of it.

As Robison’s family can easily document, the deafness of the state of Texas to Larry Robison’s paranoid schizophrenia was nothing new. The Robisons spent the years preceding 1982 fighting for Larry’s sanity, and have spent the years since fighting for his life. As a teenager he began acting strangely, hearing voices, believing he had secret paranormal mental powers. He joined the Army but was discharged after only a year — only much later was the family told that he was convinced he could control people and objects with his mind. It was easier for the Army to get rid of him than help him. Larry’s condition continued to deteriorate, and for four years his parents attempted to get him medical treatment, to get him committed for mental care. At one point, Larry spent six months in jail because his parents could not find a hospital to admit him. Larry himself, in his more desperately lucid moments, begged them to help him. Again and again the Robisons were told, “He’s not on your insurance … he doesn’t have his own … we can’t commit him for more than thirty days… he’s not your problem … and he’s never been violent. Unless he does something violent, there’s nothing we can do.” On the bloody night of August 10, 1982, Larry Robison finally gave the state of Texas something to do. While in police custody, he tried to help the state along — two serious and almost successful attempts at suicide — but was revived from a coma to begin the death watch that will likely conclude this month.

Even after Larry’s conviction, evidence of his insanity continued to accumulate. It was discovered that several of his relatives suffered from similar illnesses — confirming the diagnosis of schizophrenia, a congenital disease — although out of shame, family members had hidden the knowledge. His natural father had died of a brain tumor when Larry was two; a few years after his conviction, Larry’s younger sister also became ill, and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Her prospects are better, says her mother. It took seven years of fighting for treatment, but when mental health administrators tried to turn her away, Lois Robison, would deliver a “three-minute version” of her son’s story, and they eventually found a way to place her daughter in a residential program where she receives excellent care.

Lois Robison recites her son’s harrowing story quietly, without hesitation, although with the execution date so near, her voice occasionally breaks. She and her husband, both teachers, have made a small crusade of defending their son’s life, personally and through their work with Texas CURE, an organization devoted to better treatment for prison inmates. “Texas doesn’t take care of its mentally ill,” she says. “A lot of states don’t, but most all of them in the nation take better care of them than Texas does.… They don’t want to put out the money to do preventative treatment. They’d rather spend the money on executions.” In Larry’s case, that seems quite literally true. One can only imagine what the two million dollars spent on the average capital murder case — times 180 — might have done for the mentally ill in Texas since 1982.

Larry Robison’s case is certainly horrible, but is it exceptional? Only in degree. Based on her work with inmates’ families, Lois Robison says, “We’re not the only ones this has happened to. It’s happened to I don’t know how many people before.” At this writing, in addition to Larry Robison, there are five Texas death row inmates scheduled to die in August (some may be postponed). Of those five cases, three inmates exhibit evidence of severe mental illness and/or retardation.

Recently Lois Robison told a brief version of her son’s story to a meeting of the Board of Pardons and Paroles. Some members seemed interested, she said, and two even thanked her for her testimony. “It should never have come to this,” said Lois. “If we had been able to get him the treatment that we begged for, and he begged for, then these people wouldn’t have died. It’s basically down to mercy.”

In a few days, the board members will be receiving Larry Robison’s final petition for clemency, which they can recommend to Governor Bush. Larry’s mother says she still has hope. Governor Bush has the authority to order one thirty-day stay of execution. The Board can urge the Governor to grant clemency. One can only hope that Lois Robison is right. Perhaps the Board and the Governor will choose compassion and reason over ideology and political expediency. Based on the record of the Board, this Governor, and the state of Texas, there is little reason to think so.