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Wednesday, Jul. 04, 2001

Two weeks ago, Houston housewife Andrea Yates drowned each of her five children in a bathtub, one by one. The victims ranged in age from six months to seven years, and their father, Russell Yates, eulogized each of them at a heartbreaking funeral service the week after their deaths.

The public is horrified, saddened, and enraged about these events. Some blame Mr. Yates — the father who chose to have a fifth child in spite of his wife's suicidal depression following the birth of their fourth, the father who does not seem angry enough at the woman who killed his five babies. Others blame the neighbors who failed to volunteer their help in raising and home-schooling five small children. And still others blame the psychiatrist who discontinued Mrs. Yates' anti-psychotic medication shortly before the killings took place.

It is a natural impulse to want to hold someone responsible. Justice seems to require it. Prosecutors have chosen to blame Mrs. Yates, the person who carried out the sickening act of brutally snuffing out five young lives.

The State of Texas has accordingly charged Yates with capital murder, a crime for which she may face the death penalty. The decision was not surprising: Texas executes more convicts than all other states combined. And the crimes at issue satisfy two independent criteria for a defendant's death-eligibility: there was more than one victim; and there was at least one victim under six years of age.

Nonetheless, a decision to execute Mrs. Yates would be a mistake, and so might a decision to convict her of murder. Defense attorneys will soon face the challenge of persuading a jury of these points — a difficult task when anger runs high, and the impulse to place blame is strong.

Actions Count, But So Does State of Mind

No one will argue that Yates' offense is not serious enough to justify the death penalty. The gravity of her actions largely defies comprehension. A mother, a person who is expected to love her children unconditionally and more dearly than life itself, took the lives of every one of her five offspring. She killed them methodically and mercilessly.

Perhaps most chilling was the story of what Yates did to her oldest son, Noah. She ordered him to "get in" the tub, chased him down as he ran from her, and finally, after catching him, overwhelmed his struggle to survive and held his face under the water.

Yates' behavior represented a cruel betrayal of vulnerable dependents. It stands out even in this country, where violence is as seemingly commonplace as hay-fever in the Spring.

But we must not focus exclusively on Yates' actions. We must look as well to her mental state. She apparently suffered from post-partum psychosis, a condition experienced by only one in a thousand women after they give birth (as compared to the approximately one in five who experience post-partum depression).

In addition to anti-depressant medication, Yates had been prescribed Haldol, a powerful anti-psychotic drug. She also reported having a belief, for some time prior to the killings, that she had somehow damaged her children irreparably.

This belief was delusional and quite consistent with what we know about post-partum psychosis. She apparently thought that by killing her children, she would be sparing them a fate worse than death: a life with her as their mother.

Why State of Mind Matters

Should it matter that Yates was seemingly overwhelmed by delusional guilt? After all, perhaps killing is inherently "insane," and if we nonetheless convict and execute people for murder, then we must not believe that insanity truly negates, or even necessarily mitigates, culpability.

This argument, however appealing, oversimplifies our practices. While murder may typically be abnormal behavior, we distinguish, in our attributions of blame and criminal guilt, between two sorts of abnormality: the sickness that contributes to forming a person who will commit an evil act; and the sickness that seems itself to "commit" the evil act.

If a person's mental illness is severe enough, it can be more accurate to attribute her actions to that illness rather than to the person. While the distinction may be difficult to accept, seeing the change that medication can make for mentally ill people can provide a visceral proof of its reality.

The Woman Versus the Illness

Women who themselves have suffered from post-partum psychosis react with compassion to Yates' circumstances. They seem to feel that "there but for the grace of God go I."

One woman called in to a television program to say that although she did not carry out her own homicidal impulse toward her infant, she understands what Yates was feeling. In chat groups on the web, other women who have suffered from the condition, but did not kill any of their children, spoke candidly about how close they came to being in Mrs. Yates' shoes.

These women's empathy for Andrea Yates suggests that the condition of post-partum psychosis takes over a woman's personality and dictates her actions — she becomes almost a puppet in the hands of her illness. While the women who contributed to the dialogue did not kill their infants, they also did not take credit for restraining themselves or claim that a stronger "will" or "character" was responsible. Rather, they credited good fortune for the fact that the illness did not take them to the place where it took Andrea Yates.

What the women say is consistent with Russell Yates' decision to stand by his wife. He said poignantly that "She did it, you know, but the other side of me says she didn't do it — it wasn't her. She wasn't in her right frame of mind. She loved our kids."

There But For the Grace of God?

We do not like to think of mental illness as a force of nature like an earthquake or a hurricane, a destructive thing that ruins lives but provides no "villain" for us to punish. It is too frightening to imagine that any one of us — carrying on our lives in as moral and upright a manner as we can — could become a different person, could even become a killing machine.

But the truth is, anyone could. We must not allow our need to believe in our own agency and control shut out the reality of what happened to Andrea Yates.

According to her husband, her in-laws, and the other people who knew her well, Mrs. Yates was a kind and gentle person. She would let her plate get cold while making sure that everyone had something to eat. She would cater to everyone's needs but her own. She would bake cookies and create coupons for her children to redeem for hugs. She was not a monster, as strangers passing judgment upon her have claimed. She was and is a human being, one who is entitled to our compassion.

Sherry F. Colb, a FindLaw columnist, is a Professor at Rutgers Law School in Newark, where she teaches Mental Health Law, among other subjects.

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