I've struggled with the case of Andrea Yates
since I heard that she killed her children last summer. I'm sympathetic to the mental illness aspect, although I think it is unfair to characterize her mental problems as "post-partum depression". From reading this
excellent article at Time.com detailing the chronology of her life after meeting the man who became her husband, I think it clear that her pregnancies and the stresses of motherhood exacerbated a pre-existing condition. This case is actually a good one to explore the concept of "insanity" in our legal system - a concept that is very narrowly defined and with a long history
. Of course her actions horrify the majority of people, and it is some comfort to the citizenry to define her as "insane" because then we can separate ourselves from our own potential to do similar things, if just the right intersection of circumstances occur. And I think psychologically she was
"insane" in the sense that she did not behave in a manner that was functional and healthy for herself and others. But the crux of the case is - was she legally insane
From my reading of the case, I would have to say no, not to the degree necessary to allow a finding of 'not guilty by reason of insanity'. I think she knew what she was doing, I think she knew that it would be considered wrong and that it would result in negative repercussions for her. I think she could have chosen not to do it. I also think, however, that she definitely was operating with diminished capacity, and the verdict and sentence should reflect that. Finding her not guilty would broaden the scope of legal insanity; finding her fully culpable would damage the credibility of our court process. I do think she needs to be sentenced to a long term of incarceration, as punishment, but I don't think there is much hope for rehabilitation or even an acknowledgement that she should have chosen a different way out. Sometimes punishment for its own sake is reason enough for a sentence.
Naturally the coverage by the media ranges from very good to very poor. The Times.com article above was an evenhanded and thought provoking exploration of her history. Another article
, this one from Reuters via the New York Times, showed numerous incidences of the juxtapositions and odd conclusions common to journalists making more out of things than they should:
"Prosecutors contend that when she committed the crime she knew right from wrong, the only criteria for being judged sane in Texas, which leads the nation in executions…
"Her illness so destroyed her mental acuity that a test in January found her IQ was only 103, or about average, he said.
He said the tests also indicated Yates had some hostility toward men, including a sense that they were demanding and frustrated by women."
Now, "knowing right from wrong" is the only criteria for being judged sane in any state, which naturally includes Texas. The interesting juxtaposition is the tag "which leads the nation in executions", implying that Texas applies this stringent rule with the goal of having more people to kill. Maybe they do bring capital cases more frequently, but the definition for legal insanity doesn't play more of a role there than elsewhere. The number of death sentences in Texas is a result of the state's legislatively determined list of crimes to which the death penalty can be applied, the willingness of prosecutors to seek the death penalty, and the willingness of jurors and courts to impose it.You wouldn't know that from this journalist.
Not to inject humor into a tragic situation, but the next section just made me laugh. Her "mental acuity" was "destroyed" - she had only average intelligence at the time of the killings. So is the psychologist - and journalist through quotation - saying that people of average intelligence haven't the "mental acuity" to keep from killing their children? The tests she took indicated "hostility toward men", with a sense that "they were demanding and frustrated by women". Ok, any woman who's been on a date, or had a brother, much less been married, knows that men are demanding and often frustrated by women. This understanding on her part is not a sign of mental illness; it's a sign that her maligned mental acuity was actually functional. Again, journalist and psychologist fall into a pit of silliness. (And so I won't get accused of male-bashing, I admit openly that women are sometimes demanding and often frustrated by men. But they start it.)
The well-constructed chronology of Andrea Yates' mental and emotional deterioration could very well rescue her from the death penalty, and in my judgment it should. But she should be found guilty of the crimes - she is a sick woman, not a legally insane one. And journalists need to promote understanding of legal insanity instead of playing games with words.