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Jewish World Review March 18, 2002 / 5 Nisan 5762

Philip Terzian

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Justice is human | It's not hard to see why certain murder cases attract public attention. In the 1920s the Loeb-Leopold killings featured a butchered innocent, murder-for-thrills, and two rich, homosexual, high-IQ protagonists. In the 1990s O.J. Simpson stood trial at the intersection of celebrity kitsch, jealous rage and racial posturing. But the first celebrated murder case of the 21st century is more unsettling, in its way, than instructive or diverting.

Reading about Andrea Yates, or pondering her vacant expression in the courtroom, it is not difficult to conclude that she is clearly mentally ill. There is no evidence that Mrs. Yates is malingering: She has a documented history of psychosis, which was only partly relieved by robust medication. Most people would assume that a woman who methodically drowns her five young children must be abnormal. And we can agree that the conduct of the insane, like the profoundly retarded, should not be judged by quite the same standards we apply to everyone else.

But since Andrea Yates did not follow the logic of her illness, and kill herself along with her children, we are left with the challenge of solving a difficult problem. What is to be done with an obvious lunatic who kills five innocent victims?

As it happens, the law is alternately clear and unsatisfactory on the question. In 1843 a man named Daniel M'naghten killed a British civil servant in the course of trying to assassinate the prime minister, Sir Robert Peel. M'naghten, who was both violent and delusional, was judged not guilty by reason of insanity. But there was such an uproar over the verdict that a standard was established -- since called the M'Naghten rule, and adopted in America -- which asked a basic question: Did the defendant understand, at the time he committed the crime, that his conduct was wrong?

In the mid-20th century the M'naghten rule was modified in Britain and America to this extent: Even if the defendant knew the difference between right and wrong, he might still be so diminished as to be incapable of "conforming his conduct" to the letter of the law. It was on this basis that John Hinckley, who shot Ronald Reagan to impress Jodie Foster, was acquitted on the grounds of mental illness. Once again public reaction to a perceived miscarriage of justice led to a change in the law: Texas, among other states, reverted to something close to the old M'naghten rule, asking only whether the defendant understood his conduct was wrong.

That, presumably, is why the jury in Houston found Andrea Yates guilty of capital murder. Not only did Mrs. Yates understand the nature of her conduct, she called the police after killing her children, and freely confessed what she had done. It is here that the law and science collide.

For while Mrs. Yates's "guilt" is self-evident, we are left with the sensation that a strict application of the law is not quite justice.

A psychiatrist would argue that Andrea Yates is insane by any reasonable definition, and that her conduct was informed by her illness, not deliberate choice. The fact that Mrs. Yates appears outwardly normal -- not screaming or chewing the carpet -- only adds a discordant note. Mrs. Yates seems to have believed that her children were threatened by Satan, and better off dead than vulnerable to phantom menaces. Mrs. Yates may have understood that drowning her children was illegal -- that is why she called the cops after laying their bodies out on her bed -- but she was also convinced that killing them was the right thing to do. It's a train of thought only a sick mind could follow.

The problem, of course, is that we are left with the stark, horrific spectacle of a woman holding her five young children underwater until they drown. Our intellectual understanding of Andrea Yates is tempered by an emotional reaction to her crime. Added to this confusion is the public anointment of Andrea Yates as a prominent victim of post-partum depression, and the curious rationale that her plainly oblivious husband is equally responsible for his wife's unspeakable act.

The sad truth is that we expect the law and medicine to define and resolve these problems, but neither can satisfactorily settle such troublesome issues. Human institutions are, after all, only human. Medicine will help us appreciate the nature of Andrea Yates's illness, and put her behavior in scientific perspective. The law is direct in its judgment of action, and provides a basic framework for deciding what comes next: Life imprisonment, in this instance. But neither the judicial system nor the profession of psychiatry can prevent children from being killed by their mothers, predict and direct the course of human conduct, or furnish infallible judgments.

If there is a device, formula, doctrine or rule that administers justice fairly between Andrea Yates and her five dead children, it has not yet been discovered.

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2001, The Providence Journal