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Explaining the Andrea Yates Verdict


By Elaine Cassel

"If this woman doesn’t meet the test of insanity in this state, then nobody does," said Andrea Yates’s defense attorney George Parnham to the jury as they prepared to deliberate his client’s guilt or insanity. It took the jury only three and one-half hours to decide that his client did not meet that stringent Texas standard, and only one hour to spare her life in the sentencing phase. What accounted for the swiftness and certainly of their verdict and sentence?

Under certain conditions, mentally ill people may be protected against punishment from crimes—even horrible crimes like Andrea Yates committed. She drowned each of her five children, in a methodical and horrific act. But the jury felt that she should be punished, and recommended a life sentence, with the possibility of parole in forty years. The judge imposed that sentence.

All but two states in the United States have versions of an insanity defense law. "Insanity" is a legal (not medical) concept that absolves someone from criminal responsibility. Texas has one of the most stringent insanity defense standards in the country. Yates had to prove a negative—that "at the time of the conduct charged . . . as a result of severe mental disease or defect, {she} did not know" that her conduct was "wrong." This is the most stringent standard under the most restricted legal insanity standard, the M’Naghten Rule (so named for the British case that set a precedent for an insanity defense).

Under the Texas standard, the jurors apparently were most convinced by the tape recorded confessions to law enforcement officers that Yates made when they came to her house in response to her 911 call. Her own words showed that she knew that she was killing her children. She had to know it was wrong, the prosecutors argued, because she called law enforcement and her husband.

What Yates’s comments to police did not show, but what several psychologists testified to, was that she was acting under schizophrenic delusions and hallucinations that made her think that she was saving her children from damnation if she killed them. The experts testified that she was suffering from a severe form of post-partum depression, with psychotic features.

It appears that the jurors do what has been reported often in the case of conflicting expert testimony—the contradictory experts tend to neutralize each other. The prosecution offered the testimony of its own experts that Yates knew that she was killing her children (a fact not disputed by Yates’ experts) but that she killed them not in response to delusions and hallucinations, but to get even with her husband whom she resented.

The law—and the verdict—show how ill equipped our laws are to deal with the mentally ill who commit horrible crimes. Most people have never been in contact with severely mentally ill people, and few people can understand how delusions and hallucinations can take over a person’s thinking so that they have lost touch with reality. They may reason, as the jurors might have, that if the so-called mentally ill person appears to be acting or talking rationally, as Yates did both in the way she killed her children and in the calls she made to law enforcement and her husband afterwards, then they can’t be "insane." The Yates verdict demonstrates how difficult it is to be acquitted by reason of insanity—even when everyone may agree that the defendant is severally mentally ill.

The murders of five precious children might have been prevented had Yates received the proper treatment for post-partum depression. She had been hospitalized and treated with medications for more than two years, but she often went off her medications and neither she nor her husband would agree to her being hospitalized days before the murders. Psychiatrists could have gone to court to try to have her hospitalized, but these types of laws, known as civil commitment statutes, make it difficult to hospitalize persons against their wills, especially when family members do not support the effort and when the people appear to be in touch with reality.

While the civil code of Texas (similar to those in most states) made it difficult for Yates to obtain the treatment she needed before she killed her children, the criminal code made it easy for the jury to hold her accountable for her acts and to punish her. Based on the evidence in front of them and the law of Texas, the jury did the "right" thing legally. Whether or not the verdict was morally right is another matter; that controversy will continue to generate commentary for a long time to come.

Elaine Cassel, Marymount University and Lord Fairfax Community College



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