It’s Crazy

Andrea Yates and the insanity of the insanity defense.

July 2002By Comments

AT 1:06 P.M. ON THE AFTERNOON of June 20, 2001, Houston police sergeant Eric Mehl turned on a tape recorder in an interview room in the homicide division and began to take the confession of Andrea Yates, who earlier that day had drowned her five children, ranging from six months to seven years old, in her own bathtub. In response to Mehl’s questions, Yates told how the day began normally: She got up a little after eight o’clock, fed the children cereal for breakfast, and said good-bye to her husband, Rusty, when he left for work around nine. Then she filled the bathtub with water, about three inches from the top. Mehl got straight to the point:

“About three inches from the top,” he said. “Um, after you drew the bathwater, what was your intent?”
“Drown the children,” she replied.
“Okay. Why were you going to drown the children?”
The transcript reads, “15 seconds of silence.”
“Was it in reference to, or was it because the children had done something?” he asked.
“No,” said Yates.
“You were not mad at the children?”
“Okay, um, you had thought of this prior to this day?”
“Um, how long have you been having thoughts about wanting, or not wanting to, but drowning your children?”
“Probably since I realized I have not been a good mother to them.”

As you can see from perusing the pages of this issue on crime, Texas has provided the world with many a sensational murder story. But the case of Andrea Yates may be the most disturbing of all. It leads us to question something that we like to think of as a settled moral issue: that a person ought to be held responsible for her actions and her choices. Some of humankind's most cherished qualities—a mother's instinct to protect her offspring, the power of reason that elevates us above the rest of the animal kingdom, the religious faith that impels us to identify and resist evil—went wrong inside the mind of Andrea Yates. She came to believe that she was possessed by Satan and the only way to save her children from the evil one for all eternity was to kill them now so that they could get to heaven before it was too late. Was this a choice for which she should be held responsible? Or were her neurons, synapses, and brain cells wired in such a way that protecting her children and being a good mother did not mean the same things to her that they mean to you and me? To put it in the language of the legal system, Was Andrea Yates not guilty of capital murder by reason of insanity?

The answer by a Harris County jury came on March 12 of this year, after only three and one half hours of deliberation: Guilty. Six days later Yates was sentenced to life in prison. But the questions raised in her trial continue to linger. No one doubts that she was seriously mentally ill. She had been treated for postpartum depression and psychosis and had been hospitalized four times. Twice she had attempted to kill herself after the birth of her fourth child. The psychosis returned after the birth of her fifth child. If Andrea Yates does not qualify as not guilty by reason of insanity, who does?

The insanity defense exists because the intention to commit an illegal act is a fundamental element of criminal conduct. English law has recognized for more than four hundred years that children and "lunatics" lack the mental capacity to form a criminal intent. The question has always been how to limit the defense so that every criminal can't claim to have acted under the spell of a delusion and go free. By the middle of the nineteenth century, a test was in place that in some form prevails today: A defendant was insane if he did not know the nature and quality of his act or if he did know it, he did not know it was wrong. Around fifty years ago, there was a swing away from the right-wrong test toward a mental illness standard: If a criminal act was the result of a mental disease or defect (even an irresistible impulse), the defendant was not guilty by reason of insanity.

This proved to be the loophole that everyone had been afraid of. When John Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity for attempting to assassinate Ronald Reagan, the mental illness test went out the window and federal law and many states returned to a right-wrong standard. Texas has one of the nation's highest bars for a successful insanity defense. Andrea Yates's lawyers had to show both that she suffered from a mental illness or defect (no problem there) and that she did not know that her conduct was wrong. But she did know. Toward the end of her confession, Sergeant Mehl asked her, "Okay, you had told me earlier that, that you'd been having these thoughts about hurting your children for up to two years. Is that, is that about right?"

"Yes," Yates said.
"Okay, is there anything that happened two years ago that, that made you, that you believe led you to have these thoughts?"
"I realized that it was time to be punished."
"And what do you need to be punished for?"
"For not being a good mother."
"How did you see drowning your five children as a way to be punished? Did you want the criminal justice system to punish you, or did you—"
"Yes." There it was: For prosecutors, this was a clear admission by Andrea Yates that she knew it was wrong to kill. The square peg of justice had just been hammered into the round hole of mental illness.

The insanity defense had little chance of prevailing in Yates's trial. "The State could say its whole case in one sentence: 'She knew it was wrong,'" says Wendell Odom, a Houston attorney who helped defend Yates. "Our side of the case was much more complicated. We had to explain: 'If you know something is wrong but you're delusional, that's not the same thing as being sane.'" Statistically, an insanity plea is a losing proposition, which is one reason it is used in less than 1 percent of criminal cases. The success rate is around 25 percent, but this is misleading. Most successful pleas involve lesser crimes, and the state doesn't contest the insanity defense in those cases. "If Andrea Yates had stolen a loaf of bread, she'd be in Vernon [site of a state hospital for the criminally insane] right now," Odom says. But, of course, she didn't steal a loaf of bread; she killed five people. The problem isn't that the case was in the criminal justice system; it's the way the justice system works. Here's what should be done to fix it:

Change the law so that the right-wrong test is not the ultimate determinant of sanity in all cases. "It's a bizarre standard," says Dr. Lucy Puryear, a Houston psychiatrist who specializes in postpartum depression and testified for the defense in the Yates case. "To define insanity so narrowly—did she know her conduct was wrong—overlooks the larger issue of, What do you mean by 'knowing'? While she was drowning the children, she thought what she was doing was right, even though she might have known it was illegal. I don't blame the jury or even the prosecutors. They were looking at her conduct through the wrong lens." The exact wording of a revised test for sanity is something for experts in criminal law to determine, but this ought to be the starting point: Severe, documented mental illness that loosens one's grasp on reality ought to trump "knowledge" of right and wrong.

Tell juries what happens to defendants after a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. One reason insanity pleas usually lose is that jurors worry that a defendant might get sent to a state mental facility, win the sympathies of her doctors, prove to their satisfaction that she is cured, and be discharged to commit more crimes. Rather than take the risk, a jury will take the safer course of sending someone like Andrea Yates to prison. State law prohibits telling jurors what really happens if a patient who has committed a violent felony is recommended for release from the mental hospital: The trial judge has the ultimate say about the case for as long as the sentence would have lasted if the jury had found the defendant guilty (life in the case of Andrea Yates), and the judge can send the perpetrator back to the mental hospital. If the jury had known that Andrea Yates could have spent the rest of her life in a state mental hospital, they might have been more inclined to find her not guilty by reason of insanity.

Allow juries to reach a verdict of insane but guilty. This alternative would permit juries to hand down a sentence requiring confinement for a fixed period, but at least the defendant would be in a mental hospital instead of a prison.

None of these possible changes in the law could help Andrea Yates. Convicted of capital murder, she will be 77 before she is eligible for parole. Her legal team plans to appeal her case, and they have at least one strong argument for a new trial: Park Dietz, a California psychiatrist who was an expert witness for the prosecution, gave highly damaging testimony that was incorrect. Dietz, who has testified for the prosecution in high-profile murder cases involving, among others, the Unabomber and Jeffrey Dahmer, told the jury that Yates was a fan of the TV show Law & Order, which aired an episode that involved a mother drowning her children. (Dietz is a consultant for the show.) Prosecutors cited his testimony in closing arguments as evidence of premeditation. Yates's lawyers discovered that the episode had never aired, and she had never mentioned it to Dietz. The psychiatrist informed the prosecutors of his error, but by that time, she had already been convicted, and the sentencing part of the trial was under way. Yates's lawyers sought a mistrial but were denied. That rejection is the legal battleground now. Meanwhile, the one question that really matters—whether Andrea Yates was capable of understanding the difference between right and wrong when she turned on the water in her bathtub—can never be debated in the legal system again. It's crazy.

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