Insanity Defense Fails for Texas Mother ; Penalty Deliberations in the Yates Case Start Today, as Will Intensified Debate over Capital Punishment for the Insane

By Kris Axtman writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 14, 2002 | Go to article overview

Insanity Defense Fails for Texas Mother ; Penalty Deliberations in the Yates Case Start Today, as Will Intensified Debate over Capital Punishment for the Insane


Kris Axtman writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


In the end, though everyone agreed she was mentally ill, it wasn't enough for Andrea Yates under Texas law.

The guilty verdict in the case of the mother who drowned her five children in a bathtub is a major setback for mothers' support groups, mental-health advocates, and women's rights groups who rallied to Yates's defense, arguing that her postpartum depression was so severe she'd lost the capacity for rational thought.

The verdict, too, is a reconfirmation that insanity as a defense rarely works.

In 3-1/2 hours of deliberation - incredibly brief for such a complex trial - the jury agreed Tuesday that Yates' mental illness didn't keep her from knowing right from wrong, the legal standard for insanity in Texas.

The jury returns today in the penalty phase of the case. Its choice is between the death penalty and a life sentence.

"I certainly hope some good will come out of this case. Unfortunately, it's too late to save Andrea," says Deborah Bell, president of the state chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). She sat through the Yates trial and was visibly shaken outside the Houston courtroom. "There needs to be more understanding, more education, and more compassion for those who are mentally ill."

Feminists see the Yates case as symbolic of society's lack of attention to women's mental health problems - such as postpartum depression. NOW president Kim Gandy has raised questions about a health care system that didn't appropriately treat Yates - and that may not have sufficiently informed Yates and her family about the risks of her condition.

Stiff standard of insanity

But in the end, the Yates case will be known more for the difficulty of proving insanity than her actual mental health, which included suicide attempts, diagnoses of psychosis, and a spiraling battle with postpartum depression.

"If this woman doesn't meet the test of insanity in this state then nobody does," said George Parnham, one of Yates' attorneys, during his closing arguments Tuesday. "We may as well wipe it from the books." After the verdict, he was even more adamant: "It seems to me we are still back in the days of the Salem witch trials."

Long history of mental illness

Indeed, the case has sparked a heated debate around the country about the difficulty of meeting the insanity test, which varies from state to state. …

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Insanity Defense Fails for Texas Mother ; Penalty Deliberations in the Yates Case Start Today, as Will Intensified Debate over Capital Punishment for the Insane
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