- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 16, 2002

One could hardly find a larger moral dilemma than the one faced by a Texas jury asked to decide the guilt or innocence of a mother who ended the life of her five small children, one by one in the bathtub.
Yet the jurors seemed to have little difficulty finding Andrea Yates guilty of all charges, returning the verdict in just a few hours of deliberation after three weeks of testimony about whether she knew the difference between right and wrong, the age-old legal test for determining whether a person is insane and therefore innocent. It is, of course, a standard that is as obsolete and indefensible as the snake pits of early asylums. Yesterday, the same jurors imposed a life sentence.
It can only be surmised that the testimony of a battery of psychiatrists and psychologists had absolutely no chance of offsetting the heinous nature of the event that has become the focal point for extensive arguments over the death penalty, the legitimacy of rules on insanity and the validity of severe postpartum depression. That testimony seems to have been virtually ignored despite the unanimity of diagnosis that Yates was suffering from a severe mental disorder.
The irony in the jury's decision, which could have resulted in Yates herself being put to death, is obvious. No one in his or her right mind would deny that Yates was not in her own right mind when she systematically and coolly held each little body beneath the water and then laid them side by side on a bed. Even those of us most ignorant about mental disorders could see this as an extraordinary violation of motherhood. As the defense concluded before the verdict, the very nature of the act was a prima facie case for lunacy.
Many of us wondered why there was even a trial. The facts were never disputed and since the insanity of the crime was evident, why not just commit Yates to a mental institution for the rest of her life? But it really isn't that simple in our complex society. Perhaps that could have occurred if the prosecution and the defense could have worked out an agreement, but prosecutors have shown time and again they are unwilling to reach these agreements on high-profile, career-advancing cases.
That assessment, no matter how cynical, seems borne out by the fact that there seemed to be no inclination to reach accord even though Yates' husband, the father of the children, has been willing to forgive her, something that most of us who are also fathers could hardly imagine. Even realizing that this is damaged goods for which one might bear some responsibility would not be enough to dampen the loathing one feels for anyone, normal or abnormal, who would commit such an act.
And therein lies the rub. The jury clearly felt that way and was not willing to set aside those feelings despite the fact the jurors must have understood that her disorder was so severe it relieved her of the responsibility of her horrid actions. In that case, the law provides them with the "right from wrong" out that soothes their consciences.
Is it possible for people to be insane if they know what they are doing is wrong? Of course it is, but apparently not from a legal standpoint. The law seems to care little about the irresistible impulses or the delusions associated with psychotic behavior. The very fact she showed no emotion over what she had done is almost enough evidence that something is terribly wrong in her mind.
There is a huge failure on the part of the law to keep up with our understanding of the mind. Even though we have come from the depth of darkness to the light of understanding in the way we provide for mental health care, our legislatures seem reluctant to try to apply any of that compassion and knowledge in updating our criminal statutes to accommodate true mental illness.
In this case, it seems to a layman that the clear evidence of the existence of postpartum depression and its certification as a legitimate malady should qualify it for consideration by the courts as an explanation for aberrant behavior even as atrocious as that of Yates.
In the long run, it probably could be argued that the verdict really only verifies the opinion that Yates' crime is of such magnitude she should never be returned to society, although she can be eligible for parole in 40 years. Finding her not guilty by reason of insanity would not change that fact much even if she could be successfully treated.

Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.


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