AUSTIN (KXAN) — Kendrex White will be sent to a maximum security forensic hospital after a judge found him “not guilty by reason of insanity” Tuesday in the deadly stabbing spree on the University of Texas at Austin campus in 2017.
White, 22, was accused of carrying out the stabbing attack on May 1, 2017, in which three of his fellow students were injured and freshman Harrison Brown was killed. Two months after the stabbing spree, a grand jury indicted White on one count of first-degree murder and three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Court ended Tuesday with White in custody, destined for a maximum security mental health facility. Court also ended with sadness or frustration from nearly every party involved.
Court goers didn’t have to wait for the end of the allotted two days to know White’s fate in what was to be a trial about his sanity at the time of the attack. The very first thing in the court proceeding: Travis County District Court Judge Tamara Needles entered an agreed judgment, accepting White’s plea. The prosecution and defense signed off on the judgment.
Prosecutor Bill Bishop explained that once all mental experts involved found White to be insane, this was the legal outcome that was expected.
The Travis County District Attorney’s office asked that witnesses still be called to give testimony so that the public could know what went on behind the scenes and so the victims and their families would have a chance to speak.
Voices, hallucinations and Jesus Christ
A UT Police officer who responded to the stabbing and an APD detective who questioned White in 2017 both testified, collectively their testimonies described White as “flat” and having “not much emotion.” The APD detective noted that White kept flashing “peace signs” with his hands and saying that he was Jesus Christ.
Dr. Maureen Burrows, the mental health expert appointed by the state to evaluate White, believes that White has schizoaffective disorder. Both she and the expert appointed by the defense counsel agree on this diagnosis.
White’s symptoms include hallucinations, hearing voices, thinking he’s being buried alive and believing he is Jesus Christ. Burrows noted that these tendencies are not drug induced.
She added that there is no cure for the disorder, and many people burn out on the medications.
Since the stabbing attack, Burrows said that White has been taking his medications regularly. White also appeared to have gained a significant amount of weight when he appeared in court Tuesday, something the Travis County District Attorney’s office told KXAN is a common side effect of the type of medications he takes and part of the reason why people on that medication are reticent to continue taking it.
Burrows chronicled how White’s condition had been deteriorating for several weeks prior to the UT stabbing attack.
“Probably Mr. White was trying hard to be a good student, those stressors of being at college are very commonly associated with a first (mental) break,” Burrows said
She then described the DWI White was arrested for about a month prior to the stabbing attack, right next to the UT campus.
White’s mother picked him up after that DWI and noticed him acting strangely. At first, she chalked his bizarre behavior up to sleep deprivation, but then she grew concerned and took him to Metroplex Hospital in Killeen.
Burrows explained that during hospitalization, doctors picked up on White’s mental illness and gave him medications. He remained hospitalized for nine days.
Burrows explained that White believes he carried out the stabbing attack, but he doesn’t actually remember doing it.
After seeing White in person twice and going through lots of medical records and law enforcement records, Burrows determined White did not know that what he was doing was wrong: he did not know the victims, he did not have grudges against them, he did not have a history of violence, and he did not try to hide the crime or flee the scene. She even said that White told her he should “burn in hell” for what he’d done.
One of White’s friends testified that in the spring of 2017, White was experiencing a stressful semester. She recalled him talking off topic and saying that he thought he was Jesus. At the time she told him he should go to counseling, he told her that sounded like a good idea.
KXAN asked White’s attorneys if UT was ever notified of these psychiatric concerns or whether White sought counseling at UT, defense attorney Jana Ortega said not to her knowledge.
White’s mother Shatina White explained that her son was a biology major, hoping to be a cardiologist. She and her husband would travel regularly from their home in Killeen to check on their son in Austin.
After White was released from the hospital following his DWI, Shatina received text messages from him which appeared to be suicidal, so she called APD who performed a welfare check at his apartment.
“I would like to say I’m extremely sorry to all the families, I have no idea how you feel, but my family is extremely sorry if any of you could have known my son before this, this is not him,” Shatina said to the courtroom.
“I have been kicking myself trying to figure out what signs I missed, when I missed them,” she said.
She recalled that at 1:45 p.m. on May 1, 2017 (just about the time the stabbing was first reported to UTPD) she got a text from her son saying, “Mommy I love you too.”
The victims and their families
Lori Brown, Harrison’s mother also got a call from her son right before the stabbing, he called to tell her he loved her and was walking back from the gym.
Lori told the court about how she then got another call from his phone, he had handed his phone to a girl he didn’t know as he lay dying, he had asked the girl to call his mom for him.
Lori never heard from her son again. In fact, the phone line was eventually disconnected when the students were moved out of the area. A friend flew Lori to Austin, she arrived at the hospital and still no one had told her how Harrison was ( he had already died at the scene at that point). It wasn’t until she entered a hospital room with family members that she was told he died.
“Harrison was the happiest, most compassionate, kind individual, he was a loving son, he was an awesome brother, and he had just become an uncle,” Lori told the courtroom.
Crying could be heard during her testimony from the dozens of friends and family members who came to support her.
“I have no sympathy or empathy for Harrison’s murderer, and I hope and pray that he will not have, that he will never have an opportunity to harm another person,” Brown said later in a press conference.
The Brown family has seen a great deal of heartbreak in the past two years, Lori’s husband, Harrison’s father passed away from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) the month after Harrison was killed. Lori said the last time Harrison was at their family home in Graham, Texas, he told his dad that he’d be back in the summer to care for him.
John Brown, Harrison’s brother testified that “despite what Mr. White has done (that) is absolutely reprehensible, we know Harrison has forgiven him.”
Deanna Irwin, Harrison’s grandmother, had to leave the courtroom because hearing testimony about Kendrex White was too much for her to bear.
Irwin said she was expecting the “not guilty by reason of insanity verdict,” but the emotional toll of the proceedings Tuesday was much tougher.
One of the survivors of the stabbing, Stuart Bayliss, testified, White cut the lumbar artery in his back and seven of the eight tendons in his hands. White is in the ROTC program and was ejected after the first few days of officer candidate school because of his injuries. He also noted that his grades have suffered as a result, though his professors have been very accommodating.
“It’s kind of hard to know I lived while Harrison died,” Bayliss said, he has survivor’s guilt about the stabbing and thinks about it every day.
Jonathan Han testified as well, Han was getting food and studying when he was stabbed in the back. He didn’t realize what happened until a girl screamed and he saw blood running down his shirt. During Hahn’s first semester at UT, he had to get staples for the cuts on the back of his head and go to counseling.
Several UT parents and students were in court as well.
Shellane Bayliss, Stuart’s mother spoke to reporters after court saying, “looking at my son and his hand and his back, when he takes his shirt off every day, it reminds me of the phone call that I got.”
“I have a very hard time seeing that as a mom,” she continued through tears, “I won’t ever have closure.”
Joell McNew, the president of SafeHorns, the nonprofit advocating for safety for the UT community, was visibly frustrated by the information revealed during testimony.
“What are we going to do to be proactive? To support students who are struggling with mental illness and the stress of pursuing higher academics?” she said. “That needs to seriously be talked about.”
“It’s really hard to take in the fact that UT, the school that I love dearly, the leadership failed us as a whole,” Stuart Bayliss said in a press conference.
Bayliss said that UT Austin leadership hasn’t been there to represent him, both at the court proceedings and throughout the process. He believes UT’s approach runs counter to what he’s been learning about leadership through the ROTC program.
“You find some way to at least tell them that you care and you can empathize and you’re humble about what happened, instead of just throwing us off to the side,” Bayliss said at a press conference. “That’s just how I feel [like] something along the side of the road, and they keep moving forward.”
Lori Brown added after Bayliss that she feels the same way.
The verdict is not easy for her to swallow, but she is grateful she got to be a voice for her son in court. Lori plans to continue serving as his voice as she fights for safety improvements and knife law restrictions.
“I would want the Austin community to know we are glad this took place today,” she said.
SafeHorns, Brown’s family, and Stuart Bayliss all expressed disappointment that they did not observe anyone from UT leadership there to support them during this court proceeding.
“I’m not happy I’m not happy with the university, nobody showed up for this trial,” said Deanna Irwin, Harrison’s grandmother through tears.
“My grandson was important, he was a wonderful person, and he’s being treated like he’s just a number someplace,” Irwin continued.
“When you’re so-called healthy and ready to be released, you should then finish a term in prison for what you did,” Irwin said, expressing frustration with the way Texas law works with cases like these. ” There’s consequences when you kill people, stab people.”
Defense attorney Jana Ortega explained that when someone pleads not guilty by reason of insanity, things are usually carried out differently.
“Mr. White is very remorseful and if there is anything he could do to change it as well — his family — they certainly would, it just goes to show mental illness can affect anyone at any time,” she said after the trial. “No matter the color of your skin, where you live, or where you go to school, for that matter.”
“This was NOT a crime of malice or harmful intent or done for notoriety… it was an absolute tragedy,” Ortega said later on in an email.
What happens next for White
White will soon be sent to the Vernon campus of North Texas State Hospital — the state’s only maximum security forensic hospital.
Defense attorneys explained that White’s mental status will be evaluated there again and he can only be released if he’s proven not to be a danger to himself or to others.
During the court proceedings, Dr. Burrows noted that White was placed on suicide watch multiple times during his stay in custody.
“If at any time they were to deem that he could be released back out into society, that’s a conversation we could have then, but again his illness is so severe we don’t anticipate that being any time soon,” defense attorney Jana Ortega said. Ortega has no idea how White will remain at Vernon, she said that will all depend on how the upcoming evaluations go.
In June 2017, White was told by two doctors that he was competent to stand trial. His motion to be tested for insanity was denied and he was indicted. But, in March of this year, Judge Tamara Needles decided to allow the prosecution to evaluate White’s mental health as well.
A rarity in trial
Charlie Baird, a retired judge with the Travis County District Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, explained that it is common for insanity defense cases to be heard by a judge instead of a jury.
“Insanity defense cases are very, very rare in the criminal justice system,” he said.
In the thousands of cases Baird has presided over, he estimates that only three or four involved the insanity defense.
“You’re saying I am guilty, but I committed the crime because of mental illness or defect, but because of that mental illness or defect I didn’t know that my conduct was wrong,” Baird explained.