The Insanity Defense and the Limits of Legal Reason

Insanity cases continue trouble the courts and counsel from Andrea Yates to Colin Fergusan to the on-going controversy over John Wayne Hinckley Jr. This prior column explores the issue.

The Crazy World of the Insanity Defense

It was a crime that still haunts the nation. On the morning of June 20, 2001, Andrea Yates, a suburban Houston housewife, made breakfast for her five children and then methodically drowned each one – Noah, 7; John, 5; Paul 3; Luke, 2; and Mary, 6 months – in the family’s guest bathroom. She then spread four of the bodies out on her bed, leaving Noah floating in the tub. After that, she called the police and her husband to disclose the crime amid a rambling account of being possessed by Satan.

Yates should have been an easy case for the insanity defense. She had a long, documented history of schizophrenia and postpartum depression. She had attempted suicide twice, and only weeks before she had been held in a mental hospital. Shortly before the murders, her doctor had taken her off her medication. She soon began to experience delusional communications from God telling her to kill the children to protect them. Her treating doctor at the time described her as “one of the sickest patients I’ve ever seen.”

The senseless horror of the killings strongly supported a claim of insanity. Even in our collective anger following the murders, many people knew instinctively that this mother was seriously ill. But Texas has an insanity standard shaped more by political than clinical realities. Under that standard, even Yates was found to be sane, convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Now, however, she’s getting another chance. On Wednesday, the state’s highest court threw out her conviction and sent the case back for a new trial because of overzealous prosecutors and false testimony by the prosecution’s key expert witness, Newport Beach, Calif., psychiatrist Dr. Park Dietz. This time, it is to be hoped that the trial will focus the nation’s attention on the insanity defense and how states such as Texas routinely ignore clear mental illness in their eagerness to extract popular justice.

In recent years, states have made it more and more difficult to claim insanity. After John Hinckley Jr. was found insane in the shooting of President Reagan, many states adopted new, stricter standards. For example, Texas used to accept that a person was insane even if he knew that he was committing a crime, as long as he could convince a jury that he could not stop himself because of mental illness. Yates would have easily satisfied that standard.

However, Texas changed the rule in 1983 to require a showing that a defendant could not distinguish right from wrong. Thus, even if Yates was obeying Satan, she was still sane if she knew it was wrong on some level.

Of course, the government can always find someone such as Dietz, who makes a substantial living finding lunatics sane. The Texas standard also ignores the psychiatric literature questioning the significance of the right/wrong standard.

In most states, the insanity rule is now a legal version of a Rorschach test: Juries come away with radically different impressions of sanity and insanity. Fewer than 1 percent of criminal cases raise this defense, but the inconsistency among the cases is shocking.

For instance, in Colorado this year, Rebekah Amaya was found insane in the drowning of her two children because she said she was told to do so by a spider crawling over her hand. Like Yates, the standard was the ability to distinguish right from wrong. Both women had previous mental illness aggravated by postpartum depression. Both claimed that the killings were meant to rid their children and themselves of evil spirits. Yates, however, was found sane, while Amaya was found insane.

Perhaps Yates should have said her orders came from a spider. Or maybe she should have said she did it to impress actress Jodie Foster, as did Hinckley. Frankly, there are plenty of sane motivations for assassinating a president, but there are few for a mother to kill her children. Yet Hinckley was found insane while Yates was found perfectly sane.

Even within Texas, similar cases result in radically different results. For example, Deanna Laney was recently found insane for stoning her children on orders from God.

It seems that some homicidal messages from God are more believable than others.

Our insanity laws are now as incomprehensible as their subjects. Unhinged individuals such as Colin Ferguson (the Long Island Rail Road killer) and Zacarias Moussaoui (the 9/11 co-conspirator) have not only been found competent but allowed to represent themselves. We sat and watched as these barking lunatics pretended to be lawyers while the judges and prosecutors desperately pretended that they were sane.

The new trial is unlikely to shed new light on the dark delusions of Andrea Yates. It was never a question of whether Yates was insane. It was only a question of whether Texas was willing to recognize that fact in its own mad fit of retributive justice.

Nov. 15, 2005
Jonathan Turley
Los Angeles Times

9 thoughts on “The Insanity Defense and the Limits of Legal Reason

  1. I’ve noticed that some states, like TX and VA to name just two, are all about exacting punishment, and couldn’t care less about the REASONS why crimes occur. Or if the person committing the crime(s) was truly insane at the time. Or, in cases of wrongful convictions, do a completete investigation before any arrests were made to determine: 1. whether a crime was in fact committed at all, and 2. if there was a crime committed, whether or not they had the RIGHT person.

    From what I have read about the attitudes of some in law enforcement, there are two groups of people; the humanitarians and the punishers. TX and VA at least appear to be largely dominated by the punishers, and this story is just one more illustration of that grim reality.

  2. Kudos to you for this very insightful post! The Yates case was an especially gripping one for me personally because I was a PPD survivor and gave birth to my fourth baby on June 18, 2001, just a couple of days before Andrea Yates killed her children. Having barely survived PPD with my third baby, and knowing the statistics of having it reoccur, I was very nervous that I would experience it again. Being bombarded with the Yates’ case on the news didn’t help my nerves to say the least…
    Anyway, during that time, I was furious at the ignorance of the media on the subject of postpartum psychosis, or rather postpartum insanity. Every reporter who commented or wrote on the story said she had postpartum depression, which is a completely different disorder from postpartum psychosis. I felt that this ignorance seeped its way into the TX court system. No one seemed to understand the psychosis that she had to have experienced to have done what she did. You’re absolutely correct — hers should have been an easy case for insanity. Insanely easy.

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