Insanity defense fails for Texas mother
Penalty deliberations in the Yates case start today, as will intensified debate over capital punishment for the insane.
HOUSTON — In the end, though everyone agreed she was mentally ill, it wasn't enough for Andrea Yates under Texas law.
The guilty verdict in the case of the mother who drowned her five children in a bathtub is a major setback for mothers' support groups, mental-health advocates, and women's rights groups who rallied to Yates's defense, arguing that her postpartum depression was so severe she'd lost the capacity for rational thought.
The verdict, too, is a reconfirmation that insanity as a defense rarely works.
In 3-1/2 hours of deliberation - incredibly brief for such a complex trial - the jury agreed Tuesday that Yates' mental illness didn't keep her from knowing right from wrong, the legal standard for insanity in Texas.
The jury returns today in the penalty phase of the case. Its choice is between the death penalty and a life sentence.
"I certainly hope some good will come out of this case. Unfortunately, it's too late to save Andrea," says Deborah Bell, president of the state chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). She sat through the Yates trial and was visibly shaken outside the Houston courtroom. "There needs to be more understanding, more education, and more compassion for those who are mentally ill."
Feminists see the Yates case as symbolic of society's lack of attention to women's mental health problems - such as postpartum depression. NOW president Kim Gandy has raised questions about a health care system that didn't appropriately treat Yates - and that may not have sufficiently informed Yates and her family about the risks of her condition.
But in the end, the Yates case will be known more for the difficulty of proving insanity than her actual mental health, which included suicide attempts, diagnoses of psychosis, and a spiraling battle with postpartum depression.
"If this woman doesn't meet the test of insanity in this state then nobody does," said George Parnham, one of Yates' attorneys, during his closing arguments Tuesday. "We may as well wipe it from the books." After the verdict, he was even more adamant: "It seems to me we are still back in the days of the Salem witch trials."
Indeed, the case has sparked a heated debate around the country about the difficulty of meeting the insanity test, which varies from state to state. For the most part, states severely narrowed the legal definition after John Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the assassination attempt on President Reagan in 1981. Today, it's almost impossible to prove. The Yates case is a perfect example, experts say.
"You don't usually have a defendant with such a long history of mental treatment and serious problems ... and [the insanity defense] still doesn't work," says Neil McCabe, a law professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston. "Most of the time, the defense doesn't want to bring the insanity defense because juries don't accept it. Juries are afraid of insane people."
Even so, he and others believe jurors simply did their job, focusing on the legal issues and not their feelings about the mentally ill.
"I would be willing to bet that every man and woman on that jury would say, 'Yes, I believe she was mentally ill.' But they went with the law," says Ray Hays, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Texas-Houston.
But the law is the problem, because no case can meet such a stiff standard, he says.
"The statute shows you that the legislature really doesn't want anybody to win on the insanity defense," adds Dr. McCabe. Furthermore, Texas law says a jury can't be informed of what will happen to a defendant if found not guilty. Jurors may assume the defendant will go free instead of being treated, which is required in a not-guilty verdict in an insanity defense.
The Yates trial took more than three weeks of testimony from 38 witnesses, including family members and mental-health professionals. Defense attorneys said that Yates believed killing her children was the only way of saving them from eternal damnation. They had many witnesses take the stand to describe how much Yates loved her children.
"A loving mother does not drown her five children if she knows her actions are wrong," said Wendell Odom, one of Yates' attorneys.
The prosecution spent long hours detailing how the murders took place one by one, and how Yates called police immediately after the fact - a sure sign, they said, that she knew what she had done was wrong.