Joan Becker will forever be known by the actions of someone other than herself. Her son, Mark Becker, shot and killed Parkersburg football coach Ed Thomas in 2009, and was later determined to be sane at the time of the murder. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Today, Joan Becker speaks to students, parents, mental health professionals, and those potentially effected by mental health issues. She speaks about her son and the help he should have received so that the murder of Ed Thomas would never have happened. Mark Becker was eventually diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, though that was not considered to be the reason he shot Ed Thomas by a jury of his peers. Joan has been speaking publicly about Mark and his case for over 6 years. She says she gives these talks “as a form of prevention” and to spread awareness about mental health in order to get people to “let go of the stigma against mental illness.”
According to Joan, Mark “believed that God was telling him to kill Ed Thomas” as well as both of his own parents because they were “poisoning the minds of children.” She believes that Mark was found guilty because Iowa doesn’t have a “guilty, but insane” option for a verdict, which would have sent him directly to a mental institution instead of prison and would likely not have resulted in a life sentence. This black and white mentality of guilty or not guilty by reason of insanity she believes can influence juries to give out guilty verdicts even if they believe the defendant to have been guilty at the time of the crime because they believe the defendant to be dangerous and do not want them to be released out into the population.
Joan says that Mark is currently being treated with medication for his condition and is “doing well.” He has “finally admitted he has an illness” and now holds a full time job in the prison and serves as a mentor to other prisoners new to the facility and those who struggle with mental health issues. Since entering the prison, Mark has opened up about his illness, saying that the voices he hears in his head have always been there ever since he was a child, a fact his parents did not know.
Her most powerful message is one of compassion and greater access to help and care for the mentally ill. “We use our jails to stabilize our mentally ill.” says Joan. According to her, she and her husband attempted to get Mark mental help many times before the murder of Ed Thomas. Mark had several mental health committals, but was never taken to see a psychiatrist. Joan and her husband recently had a personal meeting with governor Terry Bransted to discuss the continual removal of funding and shutting down from mental health facilities around the state. According to her, the governor was not very responsive to their advice that mental health hospitals and facilities should remain open and properly funded.
“It shouldn’t have taken prison, but that’s what it took for our son to get the help he needs. And it’s wrong”