The chilling case of a man with paranoid schizophrenia on death row highlights how the US judicial system is failing mentally ill people, writes Mark Crail

Larry Robison had left his cell on death row and was already on his way to the lethal injection chamber when the news came through.

A court had granted a last-minute stay of execution.

Mr Robison's date with death was by no means unique. Since George W Bush became governor in 1995, Texas has judicially killed 97 people, and his appointees on the board of pardons and paroles had already unanimously rejected a plea of clemency for Mr Robison.

The difference with his case, according to Mr Robison's family, who have campaigned for the past 16 years to have the sentence commuted, and Amnesty International, which has now taken up the case, lies in the state's refusal to treat him for his known mental illness.

Mr Robison was 21 years old when he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. By then his family already knew something was wrong with him, but had been unable to get a diagnosis which seemed to fit.

His mother, Lois, a retired teacher, takes up the story. 'Larry was first diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic at Huguley Hospital in Fort Worth.

'But because our insurance no longer covered him, he was discharged,' she says.

'We were told to take him to John Peter Smith County Hospital, where he was kept for 30 days and discharged because he was 'not violent' and they 'needed the bed'. We were told that we should not take him home under anycircumstances.

'When I said: 'He has no job, no money, no car and no place to stay - you can't just put him out on the street,' I was told: 'We do it every day. You'd be surprised how many schizophrenics are on the streets. Most of them cope fairly well.''

Other hospitals told the family the same story.

Then, three years later, Mr Robison committed his one and only act of violence. He killed five people.

Both a 1983 trial and 1987 retrial rejected Mr Robison's plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, and it has taken more than a decade and a half for Mr Robison's family to get some recognition that his illness played a part in the killing.

The stay of execution granted by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on 17 August is a breakthrough. Mr Robison remains on death row, but there will now be a hearing of his lawyers' claim that he was unable to comprehend fully his punishment.

His family say they have met many others with 'mentally ill, mentally retarded or brain-damaged' relatives in prison, and estimate that around a third of those on death row are mentally impaired.

Mara O'Connell of Amnesty International points out that although the US Supreme Court ruled in 1986 that it was unconstitutional to execute mentally ill people, it failed to lay down procedures to help determine whether a prisoner was insane.

The Robison family believes that Mr Bush - currently running for President as a 'compassionate conservative' - has his priorities wrong.

'The state of Texas is 49th in resources for the mentally ill, and yet we are at the very top of the list for the number of prisons and executions,' says Lois Robison.