Don't Kill Andrea Yates

Change the Law Instead

Mar 14 2002

Today, the court in Houston began the penalty phase in the trial of Andrea Yates, to determine whether she will live or die. The jury already has found her guilty of the murder of her five young children and rejected the defense of not guilty by reason of insanity-despite overwhelming evidence that she suffered from severe mental illness in the form of previously undiagnosed schizophrenia and post-partum depression and psychosis. Many Americans are as shocked by that verdict as by the tragic deaths that led to her being charged with capital murder.

The Yates FamilyNAMI opposes the death penalty for anyone with severe mental illness, and we hope that the jury will be persuaded not to compound further the profound tragedies that occurred in this case. With proper treatment and supervision, Mrs. Yates will not pose a threat to society. And if ever there is a case in which mental illness should be seen as a mitigating factor, if not a complete defense, then this is it.

Our shock and disappointment in Tuesday's guilty verdict unfortunately is tempered by the recognition that the criminal justice system-not just in Texas, but also throughout the nation-is ill suited to addressing issues involving mental illness. The law has not kept pace with modern science.

Juries too often are called upon to apply narrow, irrelevant definitions. They are asked to determine the state of mind of people, at a point in the past, to recognize right or wrong, under circumstances in which such assessments are virtually impossible to make, fairly, accurately, and beyond a reasonable doubt. The law tries to impose logic on biologically based brain disorders that create illogical, confused patterns of thought. It tries to paint bright lines between right and wrong to evaluate the dark, unbridled confusion of psychosis, delusions, and hallucinations.

In Texas, and throughout the nation, NAMI calls for a sweeping reexamination of the legal standard for insanity and how such cases are handled. Other alternatives exist, and can be studied, such as the law in Oregon. At the very least, judges should be required to instruct juries-which the court in this case did not do-as to what will happen to a defendant found not guilty by reason of insanity: that they will be hospitalized in secure facilities for treatment, and if they ever recover sufficiently to return to the community, they will be subject to continued monitoring.

Andrea YatesSuch alternatives offer greater justice than death, or a life sentence that will put Andrea Yates in prison without any chance of parole until she is 77 years old. As a nation, we can do better in treating people who grow sick, through no fault of their own. On that same point, we also must dedicate an inquiry into what went wrong in the treatment system and broaden the dialogue about responsibility that led to this tragedy. Like the majority of people with schizophrenia or depression, whenever Andrea Yates received adequate treatment, she was well. How is it that her mental illness was allowed to progress to the point where a mother killed her children? How could a doctor persist in discontinuing key medication in the face of the mother's worsening condition? Were newer generation medications ever considered or available? Were education and support resources ever offered the family? Whatever else happens to Andrea Yates, her children truly will have died in vain, unless as a society we seek to answer these more fundamental questions and find a more enlightened, humane way to deal with neurobiological disorders, as we do for other diseases.