Swift injustice

Anger and frustration dominate reactions to the quick guilty verdict in the murder trial of Andrea Yates.

By Janelle Brown

Published March 13, 2002 8:37PM (EST)

Late Tuesday afternoon, after less than four hours of deliberation, a jury of eight women and four men found Andrea Yates guilty of capital murder in the drownings of three of her five children. The verdict came as a short, sharp shock to a courtroom full of numbed and grieving spectators, as well as lawyers prepared to wait days for a decision. Next, in a penalty phase of the trial, jurors will decide whether the 37-year-old woman diagnosed as mentally ill should be executed for her crimes or be sentenced to life in prison.

Yates, who had twice attempted suicide and suffered a long history of postpartum psychosis and mental illness, drowned her children in June of last year, just a few days after her doctor took her off the anti-psychotic drug Haldol. Her defense attorneys argued that Yates was insane on the morning of the drownings, driven to the act by a psychotic belief that she was somehow rescuing her children from eternal damnation. But to meet the Texas legal standard for insanity, the lawyers had to prove that their client was not just severely mentally ill, but incapable of discerning right from wrong, a near impossible task for even the most skilled attorneys.

Prosecutors in the case contended that Yates demonstrated an ability to know right from wrong when she called 911 minutes after the murders to calmly summon the police. "She made the choice to fill the tub. She made the choice to kill these children. She knew it was wrong," insisted prosecutor Kaylynn Williford. Defense witnesses included 11 psychiatrists, physicians and mental health experts who testified that Yates was insane as she made those choices, so psychotic at the time that she believed she was doing the right thing. One psychiatrist who examined Yates the day after the killings said the defendant was one of the clearest cases of severe mental illness she had seen -- out of 6,000 patients she has treated.

In the end, during their brief deliberations, jurors asked for a large-print poster of the Texas insanity statute and a tape recorder for playing the tape of Yates' confession and 911 call. Several hours later, they delivered a guilty verdict. Yates' husband, Randy, who testified in her defense, dropped his head to his hands, gasping, "Oh my God." His wife was seen to stifle a sob as her eyes met those of her mother.

Reaction to the Yates verdict has hardly been mixed. While there have been some -- columnist Andrea Peyser in the New York Post, for example -- who have called for Yates' conviction as a "despicable murderer," many more voices have demanded mercy for a woman plagued by postpartum psychosis and schizophrenia. Hours after Yates was declared guilty, Salon talked to a number of people who have monitored the trial about their reactions to the verdict.

Dr. Diane Sanford, women's health expert for the American Psychological Association

I think the verdict is unfortunate because it shows that we really don't understand how severe mental illness can affect someone. I'm concerned this will create more barriers for people who are ill, and also that this may set precedent in future cases.

I think she had a very slim chance for a not-guilty verdict, because there were five children dead, rather than just one child; I've been involved in cases where there was only one child and different decisions were made. Also, the severity of her mental illness and how it affected her is so hard for people to comprehend that when they hear things like "she called the police, and had these thoughts for a few months," they presume she was thinking clearly enough to be able to distinguish between right and wrong, and that it was somewhat premeditated. That was clearly not the case. She was psychotic and the actions she took were what she thought was right in her psychotic state of mind.

I think the main message here is that for a long time it was known that this was a woman with severe mental health issues. With aggressive and appropriate mental care this tragedy could have been averted. I hope people take it to heart to be responsible for themselves and family members and spouses who they think are struggling, to get them into urgent care so that these kinds of situations don't happen.

Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization of Women

I was extremely disappointed in the verdict, but I've been more disappointed in the coverage of the case because I know there are very serious issues here that affect women across the United States.

The way this case has been treated tells me we haven't made much progress in the last 20 years on the issues of mental health and the understanding of psychosis, particularly postpartum psychosis. There's not a lot of research on postpartum psychosis, but if men could give birth, and 1 in 1,000 men suffered from this, as women do, we'd have a lot of research about it.

There are women who do have this disorder and don't know what's happening to them and don't get treatment. It's so important for women to understand this can happen to them, that Andrea Yates is not an isolated instance.

There are so many issues here beyond the harsh issues of an unspeakable act. When you look at health insurance and HMOs you see what we see in this case: a person with severe mental illness who was put out of the hospital before she was ready because she reached the time limit. Clearly, she wasn't ready to be out of the hospital, but because HMOs have so much power they can do that. And why was she taken off of Haldol when her husband, according to the hospital records, was calling them desperately to put her back on? It's "John Q" all over again: HMOs doing things that have a terrible impact on people's lives and families.

They are all saying Andrea Yates is an evil person, let's put her to death and go on as if there are no lessons to be learned from this. From everything that we've been able to learn, Yates is not an evil person. She is a woman who, from all reports, loved her children dearly, who was a full-time mom who literally lived for her kids; if that can happen to someone like her, then it can happen to anybody. If we don't pay attention to this, we are inviting future tragedies.

Cheryl Meyer, professor of psychology at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and coauthor of "Mothers Who Kill Their Children."

I'm not shocked. The insanity defense in the state of Texas is pretty well defined: Did she know right from wrong? But even the most psychotic individual knows right from wrong. It's disappointing and points to the flaws in the insanity defense. It leads me to wonder, who is insane? What does that have to be for someone to actually be successful with this defense? Jeff Dahmer, for example, killed people and then ate his victims and he was found sane, and he had no history of mental illness. But here's a woman with an extensive history of mental illness and who does something that defies any motivation, but she's not insane either.

Also, if you look comparatively, there's a case in California right now where a man killed five of his six children. Have you heard anything about that? How come? He's a father. We have this notion that mothers should protect their children; we are aghast when a mother doesn't protect her children. We should be just as aghast when a father doesn't. But that's the whole social construction of motherhood.

Part of the problem with this insanity defense is that postpartum psychosis isn't a recognized disorder. But what's the motivation for psychologists to take this seriously if the courts didn't as well? It sets a very bad precedent. But it's also a very typical precedent: There are very few successful postpartum psychosis defense cases.

I've interviewed 30 women convicted of killing their kids and truly there's nothing the legal system can do that's worse than she'll do to herself. There was a very similar case in 1965, the Maggie Young case, where a woman drowned her kids one by one, and laid them out on a bed. They put Young in a psychiatric hospital, and six months later she killed herself. Andrea Yates has been on a multitude of suicide watches. I know the verdict is important for policy issues, but we're talking about Andrea Yates here, and I'm not sure she really cares about the verdict: Her kids are gone.

Jane Honikman, founding director, Postpartum Support International

When I first heard, I cried. I was upset, but not surprised, because of the fact that they were trying it in a state that has very difficult insanity laws.

I don't think the decision sets a precedent; but it will force every state to look at its laws and come to grips with the fact that we're the last remaining civilized country that is not civilized when it comes to the mentally ill. The mentally ill shouldn't be tried in any court. We need to look into prevention. If I have to blame anyone [for what happened], it's society in general, specifically our health care system, and the financial decision to discharge her when she wasn't ready to be discharged -- she was still ill, this was not too bright. It's called denial and ignorance, and these are the two things we are fighting.

Sonia Murdock, president, Postpartum Support International

Postpartum Support International does not believe the verdict in the Andrea Yates case was just. This verdict sets a dangerous precedent. Our country has slowly been moving toward the understanding of infanticide with the linkage to postpartum psychosis. America needs to become better educated and more civilized like the rest of the world in the way infanticide cases are treated. Women receiving treatment, not incarceration or execution.

This verdict does more than invalidate the experience of those suffering from postpartum depression. It will further confuse women about postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis. This verdict sets a frightening tone where woman may now be more reluctant to come forward for help.

Kent S. Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation

For the verdict, it was a closed case on the insanity question, which is unusual. Most insanity claims are bogus and don't require a great deal of scrutiny, but this was a tough one. It was a hard decision to make, and I won't say whether it was right or wrong.

But even though her mental problems do not render her not guilty, they still count and weigh heavily as a mitigating circumstance. The two questions are quite different: The question of whether someone is guilty because of insanity is very narrow, whereas mitigating circumstances in the penalty phase is very broad.

It's likely she can get life in prison. It is an appalling crime, however, and that could count on the other side of the scale.

Renee Binder, Ph.D, professor of psychiatry at University of California at San Francisco, and director of the UCSF psychiatry and the law program.

I think that what the case demonstrates is a confusion by most people about the difference between legal insanity vs. mental illness. In this case, there was no question that she had mental illness: Both prosecution and defense agreed she had mental illness. But the jury was asked to find whether she knew what she did was wrong. Those are two very different things.

It has to do with criminal responsibility: Are people responsible for their actions? That's a legal definition and criteria. The way that the criminal codes in Texas define legal responsibility have to do with whether or not she knew what she did was wrong. Both the prosecution and the defense experts agreed that she knew what she did was legally wrong: She called 911 and wanted to be arrested, and did it when nobody was wrong. There was disagreement about whether or not she knew whether it was morally wrong. But that had to do with the definition about whether or not she was responsible for her action; it had nothing to do with her diagnosis of mental illness.

It's unclear if this was tried in California if she would have been found responsible: In California, it's about whether she was incapable of knowing and understanding the quality of her act and knowing right from wrong. An argument in California could have been: Did she understand the nature and quality of what she had done? But the Texas definition is stricter.

The good part of this is if people now recognize postpartum psychosis in other women, it will hopefully prevent something like this from happening again. This was a terrible tragedy.

Michelle Oberman, professor of law at DePaul University, and coauthor of "Mothers Who Kill Their Children"

I am not surprised, nor angry with the jury. The test we use for the insanity defense in this country -- did the defendant know that her acts were wrong -- is an incredibly difficult one to meet. It grows out of a 19th century understanding of the mind, and was crafted in an era in which doctors did not know even the vaguest things about the nature of mental illness. To be fair, they did not know much about any variety of illness at that time -- no idea about bacteria, or even about the importance of washing one's hands.

Obviously, medicine has progressed since that time. And we now understand that one's suffering from mental illness, and even profound mental illness, such as psychosis, often leaves one unable to control her acts, even though she understands that they are wrong.

Both sides in the Yates case agree that she was deeply ill when she killed her children. It seems abundantly clear, after four hospitalizations and two suicide attempts, that she was unable to control her impulses. There is no disagreement over the fact that her "motive" in killing was to obey the voices she heard in her head. To assess her blameworthiness merely by asking the question of whether she knew her acts were wrong seems to miss the point entirely. It is time to move the insanity defense into a 20th, if not a 21st century, understanding of mental illness.

This being said, I would be shocked and dismayed were the jury to vote in favor of the death penalty in this case. Although there are many women (13) currently on death row for having killed their children, few present such compelling evidence of mental illness as Ms. Yates. Killing her would be a way of attempting to purge society of the guilt that we all share in having failed to find a way to protect these children.

Make no mistake about it -- given her illness and her social isolation, it was virtually inevitable that Ms. Yates would harm either herself or her children. But it is equally clear that there are many who could have intervened to prevent the harm from occurring. Killing her will merely distract us from the critically important lessons we must learn about why these cases occur, and what we must do to prevent them.

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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