Beyond Accommodation: Reconstructing the Insanity Defense to Provide an Adequate Remedy for Postpartum Psychotic Women

By Manchester, Jessie | Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Beyond Accommodation: Reconstructing the Insanity Defense to Provide an Adequate Remedy for Postpartum Psychotic Women


Manchester, Jessie, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology


I. INTRODUCTION

Victorian psychologist Dr. Henry Maudsley wrote in 1892 when questioning why mothers kill their children: "[a] mother, worn down by anxiety and ill-health," can become "very low-spirited and desponding" and "imagin[ing] perhaps that her soul is lost, or that her family are coming to poverty," might "one day, in a paroxysm of despair, kill[] her children in order to save them from misery on earth, or because she is so miserable that she knows not what she does." (1)

On the morning of June 20, 2001 Andrea Pia Yates was feeding her children cereal for breakfast when her husband Rusty left for work in Clearwater, Texas. (2) However, the morning was hardly typical, as Yates drowned her five children in the family bathtub and then calmly called the police and her husband to tell them that something was wrong with the children (3) As she drank a Diet Coke, Yates told police officers who arrived at her house that her children were not "developing correctly" and that she had "not been a good mother to them." (4) Perhaps, as Dr. Maudsley phrased it, Yates had become "so miserable that she knows not what she does," (5) as is suggested from Yates' substantial mental illness history. (6) Since 1999, Yates had been hospitalized four times, attempted suicide twice, and her doctor for a time had prescribed Haldol, a medication designed to control hallucinations and other psychotic symptoms. (7)

The media onslaught surrounding the Yates case is typical of American press coverage involving mothers who kill their children. (8) Unlike almost any other criminal defendants, mothers who murder their children evoke sympathy, confusion, and abhorrence. (9) Society is tom between wanting to protect the helpless child and recognizing that perhaps the very act of child murder suggests that the mother was severely ill or demented and therefore deserving of sympathetic sentencing, (10) In modern American society, childcare and other household tasks, still remain ultimately the woman's responsibility, (11) Thus, when mothers kill children, the women's typical role as child nurturers and primary child care givers is contradicted and challenged. (12) Societal ambivalence towards mothers who kill is reflected in the disparate sentencing of maternal infanticide offenders, ranging from the death penalty to more lenient sentences of one to two years in prison. (13)

A number of other countries have passed infanticide statutes that mandate consideration of a woman's mental state in infant murder cases that occur within a year after a woman gave birth. (14) But American courts have not adopted similar statutes, (15) In all states, mothers who kill their children are prosecuted under homicide statutes. (16) Many researchers have pointed out the inconsistency in the American courts in responding to infanticides, and some have suggested statutory reform similar to those statutes adopted in other countries. (17) In the United States, courts continue to evaluate postpartum depression defenses and other mental illnesses under the existing insanity defense, (18) The prevailing insanity defense test (19) applied across United States jurisdictions is extremely narrow and makes proving legal insanity exceptionally difficult for even the most severely postpartum psychotic women. (20) Therefore, the Yates case is most significant because it demonstrates the pressing need for insanity defense reform to address the realities of postpartum psychosis and other mental illnesses. (21)

Most state jurisdictions currently use a version of the narrow M'Naghten insanity test (22) developed under English common law in 1843 to assess whether defendants have met the burden of establishing a complete insanity defense to murder. (23) Despite extensive criticism of the M'Naghten test and state attempts at reform, most states reverted back to a narrow insanity defense in the aftermath of John Hinckley, Jr.'s acquittal for reason of insanity after he attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.

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