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but not nearly sane

by Julia Sneden

The Texas trial of Andrea Yates stirs up all manner of questions about the legal definitions of guilt and insanity. It's a high-profile case by virtue of its sheer horror: the fact that a mother relentlessly chased down and drowned all five of her children, one after another, is so unimaginable that we can only shake our heads and proclaim that she must have been insane.

The state of Texas, however, has laws that say that if she was able to tell right from wrong, she was sane. Her prosecutors based their case on the fact that she knew the wrongness of her deeds because she called the police when she was done, and when they arrived, asked them when her trial would be held.

It might have been pointed out that sometimes a person calls the police when he or she is in trouble. And knowing that the law says that you are wrong and that you will have to stand trial doesn't count for much if you are operating under the influence of a reason that, in your crazed mind, you perceive to be more binding than the law. Yates has stated that she thought she was saving her children from eternal damnation.

Testifying in a similar case in which a mother drowned or strangled (it was never clear which) her 22-month-old daughter, Dr. Scott Reichlin, a forensic psychiatrist at Oregon State Hospital, asserted that even during a psychotic episode, a person is aware of what he or she is doing physically. In other words, awareness does not lessen his or her insanity or compulsion. You may know what you're doing physically and may, I assume, even know that it is wrong, but still feel irresistibly compelled to do it.

This is not a defense of Yates's crime. There is no defense for someone who has committed such a heinous act. Insanity is an explanation, not an excuse.

Our courts have a rather strange label in their "not guilty by reason of insanity" verdicts. It seems to imply that if a people's minds are sick, they are not guilty of the crimes, even if their hands are still dripping with the victim's blood.

Wouldn't it make better sense to say "guilty by reason of insanity?" That phrase acknowledges physical responsibility for acts committed under the influence of a sick mind. This phrasing is under great discussion in Ireland and England. In America, some states such as Alaska, Maryland and Pennsylvania have approved a "guilty by reason of insanity" verdict. According to the Forensic Psychiatry website, however, that verdict essentially ensures a sentence of life in prison.

It seems to me that given an understanding that a crime can be caused by insanity, sentencing should not be restricted to the either/or of life in prison versus the death penalty, but might also include life in a mental institution.

There would, of course, need to be some system of determining whether the sentence of a person thus institutionalized should be irrevocable, or commutable if the person regains mental health. One would hope that such a possibility would be linked to the severity of the crime, but then we have to consider also the reliability of the judgment of those who would evaluate the defendant's progress.

There was a famous case in England, where after poisoning several people, being found guilty but insane, doing his time in the hospital and being declared (by a psychiatrist) no longer a danger to society, the inmate was released, whereat he killed two more people by poison and severely injured two others.

Is anyone competent to judge whether, after treatment, Yates would present a danger to society? On the face of it, one might think that she would not, as long as she never has more children and continues to take drugs to control her schizophrenia. But who is to say that she will stay on the medication? Who can be sure her voices will leave her alone, now that she has completed what she perceived to be their objective (i.e. killing her children)? And even if her mental illness is under control, could remorse over the murder of her children drive her toward destruction of herself or others?

A few years ago in my city, a young man under the influence of drugs shot and killed five innocent people. He later claimed that he thought he was fighting with demons. The verdict in the case was: "not guilty by reason of insanity," and the fact that the insanity had been temporary and caused by drugs didn't seem to matter. He has been in a state mental hospital ever since. Every few years there is a parole hearing, and several times his psychiatrists have stated that he is no longer a danger to society. The families of the victims show up at the hearings religiously, and are given a chance to have their say. So far, they have prevailed in their efforts to keep him locked away. They are eloquent about their concerns. They feel that if he is released, there's no way be sure that he will not take drugs again, and they fear that his reaction to those drugs might be every bit as lethal as it was the first time. I like to think of myself as a humane person, but I am very glad that his freedom remains curtailed.

In Yates's case, however, I feel deep pity. Anyone who has lived with young children knows the stresses and strains for parents, especially for fulltime mothers. Even the most stable among us have had moments of feeling desperately inadequate. It is mind-boggling to think that a mentally ill young woman was expected to cope with five little children, and not just to cope but to home-school them as well. It seems to me that at the very least her husband and family were sadly lacking in empathy or understanding of what was asked of her.

It is also inconceivable to me that once she had experienced postpartum depression, she and her husband made the decision to continue having children. My only experience with the problem comes through a dear friend's daughter-in-law who suffered from PPD, but even such secondhand knowledge was sufficient to instruct me that it is real and devastating, extremely dangerous to both mother and child. Fortunately, my friend was available to move into the household and care for the baby while the daughter-in-law received good treatment, and the whole affair had a happy outcome. Thereafter, however, the young couple decided not to take chances, and chose not to have more children.

There is no possible resolution to Andrea Yates's situation. In theory, during the rest of her life in prison, she will receive the drugs and treatment she needs. In that case, she will be sane enough to recognize the horror of her crime. There could be no more severe punishment. Compared to it, the death sentence would have been merciful. And if she does not receive treatment, the living hell of her own sick mind coupled with being locked up with sociopaths is unimaginable. Either way, she will pay for her crime forever.



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