Andrea Yates, insanity and guilt

Posted: Jul 28, 2006 12:01 AM

Never has a news story affected me the way the Andrea Yates tragedy did when it first broke. I was in the car when I heard the news on the radio, and I literally had to pull over -- the horror was just too overwhelming. As I recall it, these were the words that constricted my chest: "Police say the mother chased her oldest son around the house after having drowned his younger siblings." Noah was 7. He screamed as his mother dragged him to the tub.

I later learned from court testimony that the boy struggled for his life while his mother held him under water and twice broke through the surface to sputter an apology for anything he had done wrong to merit such a punishment. Another of the children, it might have been John (6) or Paul (3), was found with strands of his mother's hair in his fist.

On July 26, at her retrial, Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity. She will be committed to a mental institution for an indefinite period, but her crime is erased.

Few people who heard the details of Yates's disintegration could doubt that she suffered from mental illness. Normal until the birth of her first child, Yates began to have psychotic "visions" after Noah was born that worsened with every subsequent birth.

She was diagnosed several times by different psychiatrists as having any of a number of dire conditions, including major depression, post-partum psychosis and schizophrenia (though the medical experts differed in their diagnoses). She first tried to commit suicide in 1999 by taking an overdose of pills. She was prescribed anti-depressants but refused to take them. She then declined to feed her children because she claimed they were eating too much. She told her husband, according to, that characters on television were talking to her and she imagined that there were video cameras in the ceiling of their house.

Later that same year, Rusty Yates came home to find his wife crouched in the bathroom holding a knife to her throat. She spoke of hallucinations. She was hospitalized in a psychiatric unit and remained catatonic for 10 days. The drug Haldol was prescribed, and she improved and was discharged. But the psychiatrist warned Rusty that having any more babies might renew Andrea's psychosis.

Six months later, apparently at the urging of her husband, Yates was pregnant again and had stopped taking her medication. When her father died soon after Mary, the couple's fifth child, was born, Andrea Yates fell apart. She stopped speaking, mutilated her body, frantically read the Bible and stopped feeding her infant.

On June 20, 2001, Andrea waited for Rusty to leave for work and then methodically murdered her five children. She told police she had done it because "they weren't developing correctly."

Two juries have had to decide to what degree Andrea Yates was responsible for her behavior. But no juries have ever been asked to consider Rusty's guilt. The word negligent doesn't even begin to describe his malfeasance. How is it possible that a man who knows his wife's sanity has been compromised by childbirth can nonetheless impregnate her five more times (she miscarried once)?

How could he leave her alone when he knew she was, at the very least, suicidal -- and when her failure to care for the children (and feeding is pretty elemental) revealed a clear case of endangering the welfare of a child? What was he thinking when he urged Andrea to home school all four of their children (the fifth came later) in the converted school bus they were living in?

Who is more guilty here: the sane one or the insane one? Some of the jurors in the retrial expressed regret that they could not legally find Yates "guilty but insane." Texas, unlike some other states, doesn't have such a verdict. In the common law tradition, insanity relieves a person of criminal responsibility because the insane have a diminished capacity to understand the wrongfulness of their crimes. But in practice, the line between rationality and irrationality is very hard to draw. Didn't Andrea wait until Rusty left the house to begin her murders? Doesn't that suggest planning?

Expert witnesses disagree all the time about the nature, extent and effects of mental illnesses. It therefore falls upon juries to use their common sense as to whether a defendant understood what he or she was doing. Many jurors have difficulty applying the words "not guilty" to a person like Andrea Yates -- crazy though she clearly is. For moral clarity as much as anything, there ought to be an option for "guilty but insane."