Lois and Ken Robison raised eight children the old-fashioned way -- Sunday school, Boy Scouts and family outings to drive-in movies. She taught third grade; he taught Spanish.
They are not the sort of people who expected to be visiting Death Row.
But something went wrong with their son Larry: paranoid schizophrenia, doctors finally concluded. The hospitals wouldn't keep him because he wasn't violent. Then, in 1982 at age 24, he proved the doctors wrong and killed five people, including an 11-year-old boy.
That's when Lois Robison, who had spent years fighting to get someone to treat her son, found herself fighting to stop the state of Texas from executing him -- and everyone else who's mentally ill and on Death Row.
In the past 16 years, she has taken her crusade across the country and beyond, from the Texas legislature to the "Today Show," from the Philippines to Baltimore when Flint Gregory Hunt was executed in 1997.
"It never was about just Larry," Lois Robison said recently from her home in Burleson, outside Fort Worth, the day after her son got a temporary reprieve from execution. "It was about all the mentally ill in prison and about getting the proper mental health care for everyone who needs it so we don't have to have these tragedies."
Today her struggle has reached the 11th hour, with the state's highest criminal court set to decide in November whether Larry Robison, 42, is sane enough to be executed.
If Robison -- whose story is part of the current "An Exquisite Dream of Fire" at Baltimore Theatre Project -- is deemed too ill, the state faces a ghoulish prospect: If doctors are assigned to treat him, they could make him well enough to be executed.
"It's a real ethical conflict for the psychiatrists and doctors," said Richard Dieter, executive director of Washington's Death Penalty Information Center. "You're treating them so they can be healthy so they can be executed."
The case, besides adding to the debate over death sentences for the mentally ill, has exposed the frustrations often faced by those desperate for treatment. Had someone listened to Lois Robison early on, five -- maybe six -- lives might have been saved.
The couple, with Lois in the more visible role but Ken working tirelessly by her side, have drawn attention in part because they're so ordinary, both former Scout leaders and Sunday school teachers who were in church whenever the doors were open.
The gray-haired grandmother, describing how a happy middle-class life unraveled, asks people to examine how society handles its mentally ill.
"My Texan culture is very pro death penalty, and my family's attitude is that it's a necessary evil," said Suzanne Rittenberry, vice chair of the board of Texas CURE, which works to improve life for inmates and their families. "But when my parents met Ken and Lois, people who could be their relatives, they had this sense of 'there, but for the grace of God.' "
Family members of the victims, however, aren't swayed by the Robisons' dedication, and argue that the death penalty should proceed against a convicted murderer pronounced sane by a jury.
"His mother cannot live with the horror of the fact that her son murdered five people, so she has convinced herself that he's insane and has recruited advocacy groups by convincing them as well," said Melissa Estes, first cousin to one of the victims. "She's retrying the issue of his insanity in the press, which is a subversion of trial by jury in our justice system."
The family history
Larry Robison started showing signs of trouble as an adolescent, though he was never violent until his sudden rampage in 1982, according to family members, and attorneys, medical records and letters going back 20 years.
Larry was the third child and first son of Lois and her first husband, Lloyd Epp, who died of brain cancer when Larry was two.
Three years later, Lois -- struggling to raise four children -- met Ken Robison, a father of two, at church. They couldn't afford baby-sitters, so Lois and Ken dated with six little chaperones. They piled the kids in the station wagon with sandwiches and cookies and a big quilt and headed for the drive-in movies on dollar night. They married and had two children together, for a total of eight.
Larry was quiet and easy going, a day dreamer who loved Captain Kangaroo -- but also an avid reader with high marks, active in Boy Scouts, the swim team, the church youth group and the school band.
He was 12 when his parents first noticed something was wrong. He disrupted class. His grades dropped. He collected strange things, lots of pencils and staplers. By high school he was into drugs, running away from home, suffering bouts of irrational fear and hearing voices.
A Kansas City psychiatric center couldn't identify his problem, nor could a mental health center in Fort Worth.
At 17, he enlisted in the Air Force, but his condition deteriorated -- he was now hallucinating -- and he was honorably discharged after a year. By then, Larry thought he could move things with his mind. He built a plywood pyramid and slept under it because he thought it would give him special powers. He worked briefly as a wallboard hanger and got married, but the relationship only lasted a few weeks.
He called home, sometimes begging for help, and said his roommates were trying to hurt him. People could read his mind. He had been flying out of his body over the middle of Fort Worth while singing the story of his life. The CIA and Air Force were chasing him. The power coming out of his head had exploded a car and killed its passengers. He was responsible for everything in the newspapers: wars, accidents, disasters, divorces. The CIA was giving him secret messages on the TV news and the programs were making fun of him.
Finally, emergency-room doctors diagnosed him as paranoid schizophrenic and said he needed long-term treatment. But upon discovering that Larry was 21 and his parents' insurance didn't cover him, Lois Robison said, the hospital discharged him.
Repeatedly, Larry was pronounced mentally ill, a condition intensified by drug abuse. Repeatedly, he was released, his mother said, because he wasn't "violent" and the hospital needed the bed, or because he didn't have insurance.
When in 1979 he was arrested for stealing a truck, his parents left him in jail for six months; the judge would not commit Larry to a mental hospital. "I am frankly afraid for him to be turned loose on the streets again, which is one reason we did not arrange for bail ," Lois Robison wrote to her attorney, Kenneth Price, three years before the murders.
"I was told by a doctor at the VA hospital that if he doesn't get (treatment) he will continue to get worse and could be a danger to himself and others."
Eventually, a residental drug treatment program took Larry. He worked construction jobs and had a daughter with a woman who, spooked by his behavior, soon left.
Then, on Aug. 10, 1982, five people were mutilated, shot and stabbed at the home of Larry's friend, Rickey Bryant -- where Larry was living temporarily -- and a neighboring cottage near Fort Worth. They included Bryant, who had been shot twice in the head, decapitated, stabbed 49 times and sexually mutilated. Larry Robison, who did not deny committing the crimes, pleaded innocent by reason of insanity but was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death. The conviction was overturned. Robison was retried, convicted and condemned again.
That's when Lois Robison, who had never before made a speech, became a spokeswoman for mentally ill inmates, who make up about 16 percent of the U.S. prison and jail population, according to recent Justice Department statistics. She wasn't arguing to have Larry set free but to have him committed to a hospital for life.
"She promised herself and the family she was not going to lie down and accept this," Vickie Barnett, her daughter, said.
But Lois and Ken were not only advocating for Larry; in fact, their hopes for saving Larry diminished with each execution of a Texas inmate who claimed to be mentally ill or retarded. ("It's like trying to hold back a freight train with your bare hands," Lois said. "It doesn't seem to matter what makes sense. They just keep running over people.")
Still, the couple pressed on, hoping that publicizing Larry's case would lead to changes in policy. "The most horrible crimes are done by the few mentally ill people who are untreated," Lois said. "The only way to prevent that is to treat people early on."
According to a 1986 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, mentally ill people may be executed if they understand the punishment that awaits them and why they are being put to death.
In 1983, immediately after the sentencing, Lois and Ken joined CURE, Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, and now publish the group's newsletter. They founded HOPE, Help our Prisoners Exist, a support group for the families and friends of death row inmates.
They also signed on with Journey of Hope, an educational pilgrimage that has taken them to marches and speaking engagements across the country, mostly at their own expense. They spearheaded a project that put fans in Texas prisons. They have cataloged and exposed incidents of prisoner abuse. Barnett, Larry's sister, created a Web site for the case, www.Larryrobison.org.
"That's why in Huntsville you see a throng of people," Rittenberry said. "People react on the merits of the case, but there also are a lot of people very grateful to Ken and Lois for the work they've done."
In the years since the first trial, the Robisons have learned of a history of mental illness on both sides of Larry's family. And while they were fighting for Larry, new problems arose at home. In 1989, the Robisons' youngest daughter, Carol, was diagnosed as manic-depressive and schizo-affective, and is now living in a residential mental health center.
But much of that history, along with the testimony of doctors, was not heard by jurors, something that lawyers familiar with the case attribute to a weak defense.
The family has exhausted its appeals, and the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear the case. The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles unanimously refused to recommend commuting the death sentence, and Gov. George W. Bush did not weigh in. The execution was set for Aug. 17.
On that day, 200 family members and supporters of Larry Robison, as well as the victim's families and advocates for and against the death penalty, gathered in Huntsville. Four hours before the scheduled lethal injection, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted a temporary stay and sent the case back to trial court to examine Robison's competency to be executed.
The stay was an unusual decision that may have been influenced by a new state law, effective Sept. 1, that spells out procedures for deciding whether an inmate is mentally competent for execution. And alternately, some death penalty authorities speculate that the Republican-dominated appeals court saved Bush from looking one too many times like the execution governor when he's running for the presidency as a "compassionate conservative."
So, a planned memorial service for Larry turned into a thanksgiving celebration at First Methodist Church in Huntsville.
Families of the victims, however, were not celebrating. "Lethal injection is too good for him," Gloria Windham, whose mother, sister and nephew were killed, said from her home in Alabama. "In Alabama, we'd fry him. I'd like him to suffer like Georgia [her sister] did, to beg for his life and know the terror she must have known."
Though Larry got a stay, Lois Robison wasn't finished. She was telling anyone who'd listen that Joe Mario Trevino, a fellow inmate of Larry's who was scheduled to die the next day, was also mentally ill. But Trevino's case drew little media interest. Before he was put to death, Trevino gave Larry his fan.
"They're all my sons," she said, sobbing.
'Blank and sad'
As lawyers prepare for the competency hearing Nov. 8, Lois Robison continues to make the four-hour trip to Huntsville every week, usually with Ken, to visit Larry. Through a glass partition, they talk about the family, which now includes 15 grandchildren and one great-grandchild, and how they love each other. The Robisons aren't allowed to touch their son; instead they each press their hands on the glass, and Lois kisses the glass and hugs herself in a symbolic hug for him. They all cry.
In the weeks leading up to the execution date, Lois has told Larry things she wanted him to know before he died: what he was like as a little boy, how much she enjoyed having him, what a good boy he was and what a fine student. He responded, she said, with a big smile.
Right after the stay, Lois said, "He looked kind of blank and sad. It didn't seem to matter, like they couldn't kill him anyhow."
Recently he told her: "Remember, Mom, this is really just a movie. What you think is happening is not real. When the movie's over, we'll find out what is really real."
The Rev. Melodee Smith, one of Robison's attorneys, said Larry does not believe the state has the power to kill him. He has evolved into a higher, spiritual being, he contends, and nothing can affect him. He believes he has already died several times.
Larry has not received psychiatric treatment or medication in prison. Now, psychiatrists selected by the state and the defense are evaluating him. If he is found competent, he will likely get another execution date. If not, he will likely return to Death Row, where he may be treated for his illness and periodically re-examined for competency.
"The sad thing about this," Rittenberry said, "is that 17 years after the fact, who is being punished here? It's not a punishment for Larry. The only people who are going to be punished here are Ken and Lois, the very people who were trying to prevent this from happening from the start."
Pub Date: 10/02/99