Living to end the death penalty
Grieving parents of an executed man devote their lives to ending capital punishment.
They tell it because it is the way they know to try to get something done about the thing that they consider more horrific than the murders themselves, and that is the way the state of Texas, and many other states, compound the crime of murder by putting hundreds of people to death.
To be sure, most of those who are killed by the state are guilty of taking someone’s life. But to Lois and Ken, members of First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church in Fort Worth, it makes no sense for a state to kill someone just to show that it’s wrong to kill someone.
The Robisons told their story at the General Assembly in Fort Worth in June as part of a GA focus on criminal justice and prison reform. They spoke at a workshop and at an outdoor rally that attracted hundreds of UUs despite the steamy, ninety-five-degree Texas afternoon. And they were presented the UUA’s Holmes-Weatherly Award for commitment to faith-based social justice.
Ken and Lois could be any of us. He is a mostly retired college teacher. She retired from years in the third-grade classroom. In an interview at their home in Burleson, a community a few miles south of Fort Worth, they again told the story of their son and of their crusade to bring an end to the death penalty. The walls of their ranch house are adorned with paintings and other artwork done by men who were on Death Row with their son and with whom they became friends. Larry made them a clock covered with needlepoint that sits on a shelf in the dining room.
Larry was a handsome, happy child who got straight As, played Little League, had a paper route, and was on the swim team. And then in junior high the trouble began, Lois says: acting out in school, exhibiting extreme fear, and hearing voices. The Robisons tell how they made the rounds of all the social service agencies seeking help. No one seemed to know what was wrong. At 17 Larry joined the Air Force, hoping it could straighten him out. He tested high enough to go into any field he wanted. But after a year he was honorably discharged because he was having hallucinations.
Back in Texas, he thought his roommates were trying to hurt him. At one point he called his parents and begged for help: He thought he was flying out of his body over the middle of Fort Worth.
Doctors eventually diagnosed him as paranoid schizophrenic and recommended long-term treatment. They asked about insurance. Larry had none. When the diagnosis was made he had just turned 21 and was off his parents’ medical insurance; his job didn’t have an insurance benefit. Doctors sent the Robisons to the county hospital.
After thirty days in the county hospital Larry was discharged because he was not violent and they needed the bed. Doctors recommended the Robisons not take their son home. But he had no job, no money, no car, and no place to stay. Should they put him out on the street?
Ken and Lois remember doctors telling them, “We do it every day. You would be surprised how many schizophrenics are on the street.” The Robisons got Larry into a Veterans Administration hospital for thirty days before he was again released, again because he was not violent and they needed the bed. If he were to become violent, then, the Robisons related, he could get the long-term treatment that doctors agreed he needed.
He borrowed his sister’s car and wrecked it. He drove a rental truck out of the lot, “just to test it out” before renting it, and was charged with felony theft. Again a judge refused to commit Larry to a mental hospital because he hadn’t been violent.
Larry got married and had a child. When his behavior scared his wife and she left with the baby, he became depressed. Unable to find work, he moved in with a friend. A few weeks later, in August 1982, Larry killed and decapitated the friend, then went next door to find an escape vehicle and killed four more people, including an 11-year-old boy.
Finally, everyone agreed: Larry was violent. But at trial the next year, with a district attorney running for office and public sentiment heavily against Larry, testimony about his mental illness was not allowed. Instead his problems were blamed on the drugs he had sometimes used to quiet the voices in his head. Larry was sentenced to death.
That sentence was overturned because of improper jury selection, and a second trial was held in 1987. The information about Larry’s mental illness was barred from his second trial, and again he was sentenced to death.
Lois collapsed during the trial. She was under sedation for several days. When she came out of the fog, she was ready to fight. “I said, This is not right, this is not fair. They told us repeatedly they couldn’t treat him because he wasn’t violent and if he ever got violent they would give him treatment. And then he got violent and now they’re going to kill him and that’s not right and people don’t know this is happening. They don’t know you can’t get treatment for the mentally ill unless you’re wealthy, and that they execute them in this state. And who is going to tell them if I don’t?”
In July 1999, as the state was preparing to execute Larry, his mother wrote a long letter to Gov. George W. Bush and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, laying out Larry’s complete history and appealing for his life. There was no response. Many others wrote—including the Pope—all to no effect.
Larry was killed by lethal injection on January 21, 2000, after seventeen years on death row. He chose that day because of the full moon. He believed it was the best time for a soul to “cross over,” his mother said. Gov. Bush was campaigning for president in Iowa. Larry never denied killing those people; he just never knew why he did it.
For some families the struggle would be over when their son died at the hands of the state. For the Robisons, it continued. The mission they had taken on, and were now continuing with, was to help people understand that not only is the death penalty in Texas and elsewhere wrong, the criminal justice system needs to be changed in many ways, including stopping the abuse of prisoners, improving medical care, and providing more education, training, and rehabilitation.
They also think guard training should be improved. They are working to find a way to get the Department of Criminal Justice to permit regular phone access for inmates. In seventeen years in prison their son was able to call them twice.
“The prison system all over the U.S. is really a blight on our society,” Ken says. “There are thousands of men and women who desperately need help, and they are not getting it. What we need to do is scrap our system and start over.
“Our experience with Larry has made us realize what is really important—mercy, forgiveness, and helping people who need help. That’s basic Christianity and what Jesus taught.”
Lois adds, “One of my friends says, ‘I cannot imagine a god who is less compassionate than I am.’ ”
Ken, 74, and Lois, 71, have spent much of their time in recent years traveling and speaking about their experience and the death penalty. They’ve been to Europe twice on trips sponsored by Amnesty International. Lois has been on Oprah, Geraldo, The Today Show, and CNN.
They are also part of a group, Journey of Hope, composed mostly of relatives of murder victims. The members, who are opposed to the death penalty despite their personal loss, travel from state to state speaking to church and school groups and public officials about the death penalty. “Many of them are close friends of ours now,” says Lois. “They have come to realize that vengeance does not help them heal, it simply makes the wound deeper. They had to forgive in order to heal.”
The Robisons were members of First Christian Church in Burleson when Larry was arrested. The church closed ranks around them. Members brought food and sat with them every day during Larry’s trial. The minister visited Larry many times. But when Lois and Ken began to work to abolish the death penalty the support dropped away. “That was farther than they wanted to go,” said Lois.
When someone with the Texas chapter of Amnesty International USA asked them to speak at First Jefferson in 1988 it was just another of their many speaking engagements. But at First Jefferson they found the support they needed. “On our way out we picked up their literature,” said Lois. “We came back, and we visited for a year and finally decided that’s where we belonged. It’s been the only place we’ve been totally accepted.” Ken is chair of the congregation’s social justice committee.
Many members of First Jefferson have driven hours to participate in vigils against the death penalty. The Rev. Craig Roshaven visited Larry and has been supportive in other ways, as have former First Jefferson ministers the Rev. Marjorie Montgomery and the Rev. Alexander Meek Jr.
After Lois had heart surgery in 2004 she and Ken cut back their travel. She still makes herself available to talk by phone with relatives of death row inmates. The Robisons also coordinate a project to buy electric fans for indigent inmates in Texas prisons, most of which are not air-conditioned; summer temperatures can exceed 115 degrees.
Rick Halperin, a history professor at Southern Methodist University and a member of the Amnesty International USA board of directors, credits the Robisons with much of the increase in public support for abolishing the death penalty.
“They’ve been the face, voice, and conscience of human compassion and mercy for those across America who were and are condemned,” said Halperin. “They campaigned around the world, educating people about the horrors of capital punishment in the U.S. They spoke with a moral clarity and a vision that humanized the issue in a way that reached people’s hearts.”