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Did The Jury Do The Right Thing?


Monday, Mar. 18, 2002

"If this woman doesn't meet the test of insanity in this state, then nobody does," said Andrea Yates's defense attorney George Parnham to the jury as they prepared to deliberate as to whether his client was guilty or insane.

Despite Parnham's passionate contention, it took the jury only three and one-half hours to decide that Yates did not meet the stringent Texas standard. Yet, it also took them only thirty-five minutes to spare her life at the sentencing phase of the trial.

What accounted for the swiftness and certainty of both the jury's harsh verdict and its more compassionate sentence? The answers lie in the law, the evidence, and the stage upon which this tragic drama was played out--Harris County, Texas.

The Setting: The Leading Death Penalty County In the Country

Texas is a death-penalty-hungry state. Since executions resumed in the United States in 1976, Texas has executed more than three times as many defendants as its closest competitor, Virginia. As of March 15 of this year, 262 defendants had died in the Texas death house (compared to 84 in Virginia).

If that were not bad enough, Harris County leads the country in death penalty verdicts by jurisdiction. It accounts for one-fourth of Texas executions. And that ratio is on the rise. Of the 454 condemned prisoners on Texas's death row today, 154, or 29.5 percent (and three of the seven women, or 42.8 percent), were sent there by Harris County juries.

To make matters even worse for Yates, Prosecutor Joe Ownby claimed he had God on his side. Confiding that he had prayed before seeking the death penalty, he referred to Yates's criminal acts as "sin." And Yates's jury was "death-qualified" - meaning they were willing to impose a death sentence, and, according to studies, more likely to convict. Eight of the twelve jurors were female and, as research indicates, more prone to apply a legalistic, black-and-white interpretation of the law.

The Law: One of the Country's Most Stringent Insanity Defense Tests

All but two states have laws creating an insanity defense. But these laws vary from state to state. Texas has one of the most stringent insanity defense standards in the country.

According to section 8.01 of the Texas Penal Code, Yates had to prove a negative--that "at the time of the conduct a result of severe mental disease or defect, [she] did not know" that her conduct was "wrong." This is one interpretation of the mens rea requirement of criminal law--the defendant must have had "criminal intent" or a "guilty mind."

Texas's law is derived from the most restrictive legal insanity standard, the M'Naghten Rule (so named for a precedent-setting British insanity defense case). But unlike Texas's statute, the more typical version of the M'Naghten Rule asks whether at the time of the offense, as a result of mental disease or defect, the defendant was unable to know either the nature and quality of the act committed, or whether the act was right or wrong. In contrast, as noted above, under Texas's standard the defendant must prove the latter factor--failure to know the act was wrong. The law could hardly be narrower.

What constitutes "knowing one's act is wrong" in this context? What is "knowing"? Does "wrong" mean "legally wrong" or "morally wrong"? The statute does not explain, so the jury was left to apply the statutory language to the facts as it saw fit.

This they did by listening to tapes of the confessions in which Yates described the murders. So important were her words that they heard the tapes a second time--asking the court to provide them during deliberations. Yates's recitation of her deeds indeed shows an awareness, a perception, of what she was doing. It was clear that she knew she was killing her children and not giving them a bath.

Granted, insanity would have been easier to prove if Yates had thought she was giving her children baths. Then it would have been obvious that she did not know her act was wrong. But the defense is not foreclosed just because she knew she was killing her children - for other evidence showed she did not know that to kill her children was wrong.

Yates's attorneys offered evidence that she believed she was saving her children by killing them. From her deranged perspective, she was doing right and not doing wrong. This distorted belief was a product of her delusions and hallucinations. Commands from a voice told her drowning her children was the way to save them from "damnation."

If this evidence is to be believed, Yates knew what she was doing, but did not know that it was wrong. She should have been found-even under Texas's narrow law--not guilty by reason of insanity.

Psychosis--A Different Kind of "Knowing"

Then why didn't the jurors find Yates to be insane? One answer may come from the fact that many people have difficulty understanding that people suffering from delusions and psychosis can know what they are doing, and yet not know that it is wrong.

It may be possible for most people to understand someone not knowing what they are doing; most of us have seen people under the influence of drugs or alcohol whose judgment about what is going on around them is dramatically impaired. But we have not generally had experience with people who are not just impaired, but actually delusional.

Yates "knew" that a voice was telling her to kill her children. That voice was plausible to her because it had hijacked her thinking. In psychiatric terms, this is called "thought control override," and it occurs when one's delusions have taken over one's thinking to the point that the delusions seem entirely real. In short, delusional thinking redefines what, to the normal mind, is "knowing."

The internal control over Yates's behavior was given over to the voices that told her to do what she did to save her children. The voices in her head were just as real to her as the voice in a sane mother's head that tells her, no matter how irritated or stressed she may be, not to harm her child.

The prosecutors argued that Yates knew that she killed her children and she knew that killing them was wrong; she called her husband and 911 and reported what she had done. Applying this legalistic and simplistic interpretation to events, Yates's insanity defense was likely to fail. In what may be grounds for an appeal, the jury might have convicted Yates without finding that she had mens rea, the intent to do wrong.

Did Yates intend to commit a crime? The evidence strongly suggests that from her own perspective, which is the only one that matters for insanity defense purposes, she did not. Yet the jurors may have been misled by the prosecution to believe that even if they accepted this strong evidence of lack of intent (or mens rea), they could still convict her.

What Is Insane Under Texas Law?

Defense attorney Parnham was right -- under the definitions urged by the Yates prosecution, Texas effectively has no insanity defense. Very few defendants could meet this test.

Consider Russell Weston, the man with schizophrenia who stormed the U.S. Capitol in 1998 and killed two Capitol Hill police officers. Weston believed he was on a mission to obtain the "ruby red satellite" that would save the world from cannibalism. When the court examined him to see if he was competent to be tried, he said he knew the victims were dead, but that he could bring them back to life at will.

One might argue that Weston, at least, would be found insane even in Harris County, Texas. After all, Weston does not appear to "know" that he did anything "wrong," either legally or morally. But is he so different from Yates? He, too, knew at least that he had killed. But like Yates, he was delusional about what the effect of the killing would be. She thought her children would be saved; he thought his victims could live again. Both were delusional and wrong.

What if Texas had used the typical, two-prong M'Naghten test (that is, whether, as a result of mental disease or defect, the defendant was either unable to know the nature or quality of the act or whether the act was right or wrong)? Yates might have fared much better.

The prosecution and defense differed over the meaning of "right" and "wrong." The prosecution said she killed her children, that killing them was "wrong," and Yates knew it was wrong. The defense said she killed her children in order to save them from damnation, and that was not "wrong" to Yates.

The prosecution's perspective of right and wrong was based on legality; the defense's view of right and wrong was grounded in morality. Yates, in her delusional and hallucinatory state, believed her acts were morally "right." If the jury could have considered whether Yates "knew" the "nature" and "quality" of her act, it could have concluded that she knew she was killing her children, yet did not perceive that to be "wrong." But Texas law precluded this analysis.

The Sentence: Little Evidence For Death, and Much For Life

At the sentencing stage, the prosecution failed to make out what the law calls a "prima facie" case for death--that is, a case strong enough to put the "life or death" question to the jury. To do so, the prosecution would have needed to introduce evidence that Yates would be a danger to herself or others while imprisoned.

The prosecutors introduced no such evidence. Indeed, they put on no witnesses--though they argued for death. The judge might well have sentenced Yates to life, as a matter of law.

Nevertheless, to be on the safe side, the defense offered Yates's mother and husband, as well as friends and a mental health advocate, to plead for her life. The advocate, who was well-intentioned but misinformed, assured the jury that if they spared Yates's life, she would get the treatment she needed in prison.

On balance, the jurors had no choice but to sentence Yates to life in prison. It is not surprising their deliberations were brief.

Treatment in Prison: Why Yates Will Probably Receive Little Help

In truth, Yates is unlikely to find proper treatment in prison. Instead, she will become part of the growing mentally ill inmate population.

Recent data indicate that at least a quarter of prisoners have been diagnosed with a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression, and bipolar disorder. (Others suffer from milder forms of depression, substance abuse disorders, and anxiety, adjustment, and personality disorders; in total, about 60-75 percent of prisoners qualify as mentally ill.) Women prisoners, particularly, suffer from high levels of depression and anxiety disorders.

The mentally ill in prison are more prone to be abused by prison guards and other prisoners, and to die in prison from abuse or medical and physical neglect. Few receive appropriate diagnoses or treatment. The treatment they do receive consists mostly of medications. There is little, if any, cognitive-behavioral therapy, the kind that would help prisoners actually effect change in their lives.

How the Yates Tragedy Might Have Been Prevented

This tragedy could have been prevented. Serious mental illness existed on both sides of Yates's family. Once Yates suffered her first psychotic break after the birth of a child, she should have been educated as to the serious risks associated with having future children - due both to her severe postpartum depression and family history of mental illness.

Upon release from each of several hospitalizations, Yates should have been red-flagged by community mental health treatment centers for continued follow-up. Indeed, Texas law could mandate outpatient follow-up for mentally ill patients like Yates who are on medication, but dangerous when they stop taking it. Several states have adopted these laws. They only work if health care providers, family, and neighbors are educated and vigilant - noticing changes in mentally ill persons they know, and being willing to notify the court if a mentally ill person is ignoring an order directing them to take medication.

Finally, in the days before the murder, as Yates became increasingly delusional, the professionals who treated her should have petitioned the court for a civil commitment, rather than relying on Yates or her husband to make this difficult call.

How Texas's Insanity Law Should Be Reformed

Meanwhile, insanity laws like those in Texas should be reformed so that a seriously mentally ill person like Yates can benefit from them. Jurors should be instructed that insanity acquittees are committed to a state penal psychiatric facility, and cannot be released until they prove that they are no longer mentally ill or dangerous - and that the period of commitment is typically a far longer period of time than they would have been incarcerated if convicted.

We need to adopt a more compassionate approach that tempers mean justice with mercy and, while confining the mentally deranged, also treats them - rather than vilifying them, denying them meaningful treatment, and even executing them.

That the jurors spared Yates's life is of some comfort. But, as her husband has indicated, to some extent, it is cold comfort. That the jury convicted her at all is itself insanity. We can only hope that they did not know that their decision was wrong.

Elaine Cassel practices law in Virginia and teaches law and psychology. Her textbook, Criminal Behavior (Allyn & Bacon, 2001), explores crime and violence from a developmental perspective. She writes and lectures for continuing legal education courses in Internet law, privacy, genetics, and health law. She is Vice-Chair of the Behavioral Science Committee of the ABA Science and Technology Law Section and a member of the Section's Privacy and Computer Crime Committees. In an earlier article for this site, Ms. Cassel discussed the Supreme Court's consideration of whether to prohibit the execution of the mentally retarded.

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