Andrea Yates: Ill or Evil?
Postpartum Psychosis: A Tough Sell
- On October 21, 2002 in Kansas City, Mary Bass, 32, was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder in the deaths of her two male children. She claimed that another personality named "Sharon" that she could not control had abused them to the point of death. She had locked them in a room and starved them, burning their legs and feet in scalding water to punish them. Psychologists said that she suffered from depression, posttraumatic stress syndrome, schizophrenia, and multiple personality disorder. She was also suicidal. She told police, "I killed my baby. I should go to jail." Social workers had seen the abuse but did nothing to remove the children.
- In Wisconsin, Kristin Scott, 22, pleaded not guilty by reason of mental deficiency on July 18, 2003, to charges that in January she let her newborn infant daughter die and hid the remains in a plastic tub. She had also similarly hidden the remains of a child she claimed had been stillborn in April 2001. Scott's parents discovered the remains of the most recent baby when Scott moved to Texas in June, leaving the tub behind in their home. She said that she had secretly given birth in January and because she was afraid of what people would say, the baby had to die. If convicted of reckless homicide and hiding a corpse, she faces seventy-five years in prison.
- Naomi Gaines, 24, had suffered for a long history of postpartum depression and mania. On July 6, 2003, she took her fourteen-month-old twins, Supreme Knowledge Allah and Sincere Understanding Allah, to the Mississippi River near St. Paul and dropped them both from a bridge 75 feet over the water. Then she jumped in after them, yelling "Freedom!" She and one boy survived when rescued in time, but the other infant drowned and his body was recovered several miles downriver near an island. She is charged with second-degree murder.
- Also in Minnesota, Khoua Her, 24, strangled her six children, ages 5 to 11, because she was depressed over her responsibilities. The police had been to her home fifteen times in a year and a half, responding to domestic violence calls, but social workers had not noticed any apparent danger to the children. The mother, who called 911 after the slaughter and spoke of suicide, was transported to the hospital with an extension cord still loosely tied around her neck. The children were found throughout the house. In a plea deal, she received a sentence of fifty years in prison.
- Evonne Rodriguez killed her 4-month-old baby in 1997 in Houston, Texas, because she believed he was possessed by demons. She had tried to "pull them out," her mother claimed, but ended up killing the child. Evonne insisted that she had heard screeching voices, "just like Hell," so she beat at her child with her hand and then choked him with a rosary. She wrapped him in plastic and threw him into water, but she concocted a story for police that he had been kidnapped—an indication that she knew what she had done was wrong. Her defense was that she was distraught over a bad relationship with her son's father that had created a state of temporary insanity. Her mother testified that she had suffered from bouts of depression. The jury acquitted her and she was sent for treatment.
In America, there are no clear standards in court for dealing with mentally ill mothers—not even in the same city. Andrea Yates killed five children to save them from hell and got life in prison. Evonne Rodriguez killed one because of demons and was acquitted. Andrea probably had a better case; Evonne got the better deal.
On a CNN broadcast, David Williams addressed the issue of how difficult it is to get juries to understand the kind of depression that can follow giving birth. The primary reason juries may not understand is because such depression is temporary and treatable. Such sufferers may have been psychotic and deeply disturbed during a violent episode some time after the birth, but by the time they go to trial, they've usually been restored to better mental health. That makes it difficult for juries who see them in their improved condition to believe these mothers were really suffering that badly.
It's also difficult in a country that views motherhood as sacred and asks women to see birth as cause for celebration to admit to postpartum depression. There's little compassion to be found for the 10 to 20 percent of mothers who really do suffer.
Twenty-nine other countries recognize postpartum depression as a legal defense, writes Williams, including Canada, Britain, and Australia. If a woman who has murdered a child under a certain age---usually one year---can prove that her mental processes were disturbed, the maximum charge is manslaughter. They receive probation and counseling. They do not have to prove they were insane at the time of the crime.
Yet clearly some women kill their infants for other reasons and might exploit this defense. American emphasis on free choice and personal responsibility, makes it likely that juries will continue to give mental illness issues uneven recognition.