Andrea Yates is shown in this image made from a June 26 video. In the
opening statements of Yates's second murder trial, prosecutor Kaylynn
Williford insisted that Yates drowned her five children in a bathtub because
she thought she was a bad mother and wanted to be punished. AP
Andrea Yates, the Houston woman convicted in 2002 of killing her five
children, was found not guilty by reason of insanity in a retrial after her
original convictions were overturned earlier this year.
Shortly after the July 26 verdict, Yates was transferred to Vernon State
Hospital, a maximum-security state mental health facility in north Texas.
The now 42-year-old Yates had been sentenced to life in prison for drowning
her five children in a bathtub in June 2001. Although her attorney had argued
in the first trial that Yates was legally insane at the time she drowned her
children, she was found guilty.
Under Texas law, the standard for a verdict of not guilty by reason of
insanity hinges on whether the defendant knew that his or her behavior was
Yates petitioned for a mistrial when a forensic psychiatrist, Park Dietz,
M.D., who was an expert witness for the prosecution, informed prosecutors that
he had given incorrect testimony. The trial court rejected Yates' petition for
a mistrial, but this ruling was overturned by the Court of Appeals for the 1st
District of Texas. A new trial was ordered on January 6, 2005 (Psychiatric
News, February 4, 2005).
The verdict from Yates's second trial was welcomed by mental health
advocates, including APA leaders. "It is a great relief to hear that
justice has prevailed," said APA Vice President Nada Stotland, M.D."
It's heartbreaking that she was convicted in the first
Stotland, who had appeared on CNN to talk about postpartum psychosis during
the first trial, spoke of some of the public anxieties, perceptions, and
misperceptions aroused by the sensational killings.
"It was clear that some people were swayed by their intense feelings
about the sanctity of motherhood," she said. "They could not
accept any excuse for a mother harming her children. So they thought it was
essential that the court send a message that would convince other mothers out
there that they couldn't get away with harming their children.
"Others could not grasp the possibility that a person could carry out
effective plans and activities while psychotic or on the basis of psychotic
beliefs," Stotland continued. "This is a recurring confusion in
cases involving a psychotic defendant.
"There is also a persistent sense that society is too lenient
overall, a belief that criminals are claiming insanity far more often than is
the case and still far more often than this defense actually prevails. Many
people simply don't believe in psychiatric conditions as genuine diseases.
They feel that the punishment of those who break the rules is essential to the
maintenance of a just society."
Stotland said she believes the case provided an opportunity to inform the
public about postpartum psychosis and reassure many mothers who experience
postpartum depression that they are not likely to harm their babies.
Paul Appelbaum, M.D., chair of APA's Council on Psychiatry and the Law,
said he believes it possible that the debate and discussion about serious
mental illness and criminal responsibility generated by the first trial and
its outcome may have influenced the verdict in the second.
"It's rare that public opinion directly shapes the outcome of a
criminal trial," he told Psychiatric News. "But I think
this was one of those cases. After the first trial, in which a jury was so
horrified by the crime that they gave short shrift to Yates' insanity plea,
there was a tremendous public outcry and discussion of the issues. This
included extensive discussion of the nature of postpartum psychiatric
disorders, and of their potential impact on criminal responsibility, even in
states like Texas with narrow insanity standards. And the general view in the
media was that an injustice had been done.
Appelbaum also emphasized that the insanity plea, contrary to what many
among the public are reported to believe, is very rare. "The best study
of the use of the insanity defense was done by Henry Steadman and colleagues
in the 1980s," he said. "They showed that the defense was
considered in under 1 percent of felony cases, successful in only about
one-quarter of those cases, and its success usually due to all
parties—prosecution and defense—agreeing to an uncontested
APA did not issue an official statement following last month's not-guilty
verdict. But during the first trial, the Association issued a press release
saying it hoped the Yates case would lead to broad public discussion about the
treatment of severely mentally ill individuals in the legal system.
"Advances in neuroscience have dramatically increased our
understanding of how brain function is altered by mental illness and how
psychotic illness can distort reality in very subtle ways, to the degree that
black becomes white," APA stated at the time of the first trial."
Research also has led to development of more effective treatments.
Unfortunately, public understanding has not kept pace with these advances.
"A failure to appreciate the impact of mental illness on thought and
behavior often lies behind decisions to convict and punish persons with mental
disorders. The victims of mental illness are sick—just as sick as if
they had cancer or chronic heart failure—and, as human beings, deserve
humane and effective treatment for their illness. Prisons are overloaded with
mentally ill prisoners, most of whom do not receive adequate treatment.
"Defendants whose crimes derive from their mental illness should be
sent to a hospital and treated—not cast into a prison, much less onto
death row," APA said. ▪