HOUSTON — Texas prison officials executed a killer Tuesday who was a diagnosed schizophrenic and once claimed that a plate of beans had spoken to him.
Kelsey Patterson, 50, was killed by lethal injection. His execution brought to an end a case that had ignited debate over condemning the mentally ill to die.
Patterson was convicted in the 1992 slaying of a businessman and the man's secretary in his hometown of Palestine, Texas. After the shootings, Patterson went home, took off all his clothes except his socks and stood in the middle of the street until the police came. Investigators never determined a motive.
Delusional and paranoid, Patterson believed until the end that he had been granted amnesty from execution, said his attorney, J. Gary Hart. As a result, Patterson refused to fill out forms that are associated with executions here, which meant he did not request a final meal. Guards made sandwiches and cookies available to him.
Relatives of both victims, 63-year-old Louis Oates and 41-year-old Dorothy Harris, watched as prison officials asked Patterson whether he wanted to make a last statement. Patterson replied: "Statement to what?" He then launched into a rambling defense of sorts, including: "My truth will always be my truth. There is no kin and no friend, no fear [of] what you do to me, no kin to you, undertaker."
The U.S. Supreme Court has outlawed executing the mentally retarded, calling such an act cruel and unusual punishment. No similar protections are offered to the mentally ill, and civil rights advocates and death penalty opponents seized on the Patterson case in recent months to illustrate what they perceive as a disparity. They have argued, for instance, that professional mental health experts, not judges, should determine a suspect's competency to stand trial.
On Monday, that campaign gained traction when the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles voted 5-1 that Patterson's sentence should be commuted to a life prison term. The vote, a recommendation to Gov. Rick Perry, was seen as extraordinary in a state that executes more people each year than any other.
Commission members were swayed by a petition written by Hart, who has fought to spare Patterson's life for more than seven years -- though Patterson has never cooperated or participated in his defense. The petition argued that because of Patterson's severe mental deficiencies, an execution would not "serve either the retributive or deterrence goals of capital punishment."
Less than an hour before Patterson was scheduled to die, however, Perry announced that he was rejecting the board's advice. The U.S. Supreme Court also declined to intervene.
"Death penalty decisions are never easy, and this one is particularly difficult," Perry said. "This defendant is a very violent individual. Texas has no life without parole sentencing option, and no one can guarantee this defendant would never be freed to commit other crimes were his sentence commuted."
Hart called the decision shortsighted. Considering that both the mental health and criminal justice systems had failed to protect Patterson or prevent him from harming others, the case was tailor-made for executive clemency, he said.
For example, Hart said, Perry argued that courts "have reviewed this case no fewer than 10 times," but judges have questioned Patterson's competency repeatedly during those proceedings. Patterson told authorities that someone else controls his movements by remote control. He had a history of irrational, angry behavior, had been hospitalized on antipsychotic medication and had been ruled incompetent to stand trial on two assaults before the fatal shootings.
"The governor either ignored or misunderstood the purpose of executive clemency," Hart said. "It is not to ratify what courts have done. The system was unable to handle Kelsey Patterson and his mental illness. I would be the last person to say that any kind of mental illness should excuse someone from the death penalty. But when someone is profoundly disturbed ... my God."
Anderson County, Texas, Dist. Atty. Doug Lowe, whose office won the original conviction in the case, said the governor's decision was correct.
"I'm not making a moral judgment," he said. "All I'm saying is that there were 12 citizens in this case who felt that the just punishment was the death penalty. Their judgment should be realized."