The Andrea Yates Case: Family To Family

The following op-ed, by Tom Hamilton, President NAMI Texas, was printed in the Houston Chronicle and the Dallas Morning News 

Sep 17 2001

As Americans continue to absorb the impact of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, a competency hearing, postponed from a week ago, will be held in the case of Andrea Yates, who earlier this summer drowned her five children while in the throes of postpartum psychosis.

In both cases, Americans have been forced to confront the horror of acts that in many respects once were unthinkable. Many people find themselves trying to cope with grief and to understand the unfathomable by talking with friends and family.

The similarity ends there.

Because in the case of Andrea Yates, grief and compassion must extend not only to the Yates family-but also to Mrs. Yates herself.

When this tragedy occurred, local NAMI members offered support to the Yates family-as one family to another. Like the broader Texas and national community, we shared their grief over the death of the children. We also understood mental illness first-hand and the devastating impact it can have on a family.

NAMI (The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill) is dedicated to improving the lives of people with mental illnesses, which include schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (manic-depression), major depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and severe anxiety disorders. Our members include individuals with specific disorders as well as family members-parents, brothers, sisters, spouses, and children, with knowledge born of experience. We do not define issues based on gender or political ideology.

We speak for people who know the ravages of mental illness too well. We also know that too many times, when mental illness is involved, one tragedy often compounds another. That is what Americans are witnessing in the Yates case.

There is the tragedy of her children's deaths-a tragedy so great that if Mrs. Yates recovers, she will be haunted by it for the rest of her life.

There is the tragedy of her mental illness: a clear and unmistakable history of postpartum depression that deteriorated into psychosis.

And there is the tragedy that the criminal justice system, not just in Texas, but throughout the United States, is simply ill suited to deal with issues involving serious mental illness.

That is a tragedy-because the issue is mental illness.

Mental illness is biological in nature. It is a brain disorder that affects logical, rational thought processes and emotions.

Unfortunately, legal definitions are not the same as medical definitions and the venue of the courtroom is not the home, where most of the tragedy of mental illness is played out. Mrs. Yates will face a hearing this week to determine if she is competent to stand trial. The finding would be irrelevant to her state of mind when she tragically killed her children.

She may be put on trial---regardless of whether she is found competent this week or several months from now-but she will not be the same person in court that she was when she killed her children.

A jury will have to determine her state of mind at that time in the past, which will be virtually impossible to do fairly or accurately, beyond a reasonable doubt.

They will see a person who is receiving different medicines, treatment, and support than she did at the worst of her illness. They may see a person who is recovering-because treatment does work- but the process takes time, and requires the right balance of medicine and support.

Ultimately, Mrs. Yates will stand trail and face the death penalty for the acts she committed. Through her attorneys, Mrs. Yates has plead 'Not Guilty, by reason of insanity.'

Under the law, her attorney's must show not only that she had a mental illness, but that she also lacked the capacity to appreciate the difference between right and wrong. That is called the insanity defense. Despite popular perceptions, it is a defense that is seldom used, and even then, seldom succeeds.

But even when a person with a mental illness knows the basic difference between right and wrong, the twisted logic and confusion of psychosis-which may include delusions and hallucinations-still may convince them that wrong is right, and that doing the unthinkable is what needs to be done.

It defies logic-but that is the nature of mental illness.

Unfortunately, knowing right and wrong is the issue on which the case may turn-a legal issue that does not fully encompass or understand the cruel irrationality of dysfunctional biological processes inside the human brain.

There is no doubt that Ms. Yates suffered from a severe mental illness, which was the agent that precipitated her terrible act. And, as is often the case, she had to run afoul of the law to finally get proper treatment.

When treatment doesn't work and tragedies occur, there is often a desire to determine whether a psychiatrist made the right diagnosis; whether the right medicine was used; whether a hospitalization should have been longer; whether the system failed; whether family members should have provided greater support; or whether the person with the illness should have stopped everything and asked for help sooner.

Those issues are important. But they are irrelevant to the core issue of insanity in a criminal case in which a woman will be put on trial for her life.

Tragedy should not be compounded further.

NAMI opposes the death penalty in the Andrea Yates case. People disagree over the application of the death penalty, but if there ever is a case in which an exemption should apply, this is it.

Andrea Yates' illness is incontrovertible. Applying the death penalty would be unconscionable.

Instead, NAMI believes the prosecution and defense should seek a negotiated plea.

A plea that would impose a period of incarceration, along with the treatment that Mrs. Yates assuredly will continue to need.

Ironically, in cases where the insanity defense is successful, individuals usually are hospitalized in secure treatment facilities for longer periods than they might serve under a negotiated criminal sentence.

NAMI believes the Texas insanity defense should be changed.

The law in the state of Oregon provides "guilty except for insanity" pleas. More importantly, if an individual should recover sufficiently to return to the community at some future time, it provides for constant monitoring. Research shows this approach to be very successful in preventing further criminal behavior.

It represents justice, and a better path than the one down which the Andrea Yates case is headed.

Tom Hamilton is President of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill of Texas (NAMI Texas). He has a son with the mental illness known as schizophrenia.