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Mental Illness in Texas - Executions and Healthcare Cuts


Updated October 03, 2012

In Texas, unless a mentally ill person has plenty of money and/or is fortunate enough to have health insurance with decent mental health benefits, the State appears to have the attitude that execution is as good an option as providing care.

In 2001, Texas ranked 46th in the nation in mental healthcare spending. In 2003, the Texas legislature slashed millions of dollars from the state's 2004 mental healthcare programs. Under the 2004 budget, Medicaid will no longer pay for adults to visit:

  • Psychologists,
  • Licensed counselors,
  • Social workers, or
  • Marriage and family therapists.
The 2004 budget originally included drastic reductions in children's mental healthcare benefits. Fortunately, these cuts were disapproved by the Federal government. But other cuts and changes include:
  • Complete elimination of In Home and Family Support for mental health,
  • 11% reduction in services for mental retardation, and
  • 61% reduction in In Home and Family Support for mental retardation.
"A lot of bad people"
These budget cuts are only the latest evidence that Texas is a a less-than-healthy place for the poor with mental illnesses. For years advocacy groups have been urging the courts, legislators and governors of Texas to re-examine the state's policies regarding mentally ill and retarded criminals. It would seem that Texas Judge Michael McCormick of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals summed up the state's attitude when he said, "The reason we have so many people on death row is plain and simple: We have a lot of bad people committing capital murders, and we are doing something about it."

"Bad people." Consider the following cases:

  • Larry Robison - executed 1/21/2000 - Robison's family had tried for years to get help for him through the Texas state healthcare system, but he never remained hospitalized because "he wasn't violent." The first time his paranoid schizophrenia led him into violence, he killed five people. Would those people be alive had he received treatment?

  • Gary Graham - executed 6/22/2000 - Graham was an abused and neglected child with a history of mental illness. In addition, his conviction was based on flimsy evidence and even jurors thought his defense lawyer made no effort to defend. Did he deserve the death penalty?

  • John Satterwhite - executed 8/16/2000 - Satterwhite was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic with an IQ of 74. The European Union petitioned then Governor George W. Bush to commute his sentence. There were serious questions regarding his trial and conviction.

  • James Colburn - executed 3/26/2003 - Colburn had a long history of paranoid schizophrenia, and during his trial was sedated to the point of falling asleep.

  • Kelsey Patterson - executed 5/18/04 - Patterson's paranoid schizophrenia was so severe that he was twice found not guilty by reason of insanity in previous nonfatal shootings, treated, and released. Sentenced to death for a double homicide, Patterson's condition was such that the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles even recommended to Governor Rick Perry that his sentence be commuted, but Perry refused.

  • John Paul Penry - There was no question that John Paul Penry, who has an IQ of between 50 and 63 and the mind of a 7-year-old child, was guilty. Penry's death sentence has been overturned by the US Supreme Court three times, and three times Texas has re-sentenced him to death. The second time the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded; a Texas jury then found that Penry was not retarded and thus eligible for the death penalty. He is still on death row.

  • Kenneth Lee Pierott - Pierott was found innocent by reason of insanity of the beating death of his older sister in 1996 and was released from a state hospital two years later. In April of 2004 he murdered a child. The system surely failed that child. In 2005 he was sentenced to 60 years for that crime. Even the defense admitted he was likely to be non-compliant with medications.

Tragic Consequences
Graham and Satterwhite may well have been innocent. But even putting aside the question of whether death is an appropriate punishment for the others, one can argue that their victims might be alive today had their mentally ill killers received help in time. Larry Robison's parents tried everything to get treatment for their son but were stymied by the system - and five people died. Both Kelsey Patterson and Kenneth Pierott were known to be violent, were in the state's custody, but were released without any assurance that treatment would continue, with tragic consequences.

And by reducing the availability of mental healthcare even further, the State of Texas may well be setting up more potential killers, more victims, and more work for the executioner.

Additional References:

Gary Graham: James Colburn: "Mentally ill man scheduled for execution in Texas" (no longer available)

Kelsey Patterson: "The case of Kelsey Patterson" (no longer available)

John Paul Penry: John Paul Penry Time Line

Mental Health Help, Texas Style

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