Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Andrea Yates: Ill or Evil?

Insanity Issues

The film A Beautiful Mind   details the peculiar twist of mental illness in the case of John Nash, a brilliant economist who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia much of his life. It revealed   that a person can appear to function normally to everyone around him even while trapped in delusions where imaginary people play roles and hold conversations with him.  Yet his illness finally became apparent, though it took much longer to be so for him.  To his mind, this was the real world.

Doctors testifying for Yates made that claim. "She did what she thought was right in the world she perceived through her psychotic eyes at the time," said psychiatrist Phillip Resnick.     In other words, even if she seemed to understand the difference between right and wrong, she did not know what she was doing.

The prosecutors claimed she knew her actions were wrong,.

How these two sides lined up on different poles of interpretation illustrates the great divide between the concepts of mental illness and legal insanity in the U.S.   This case made it clear that it's time for courts to better address the gap.

Yates' defense team proved her history of delusional depression, use of anti-psychotic drugs, and suicide attempts, and there's documentation that postpartum mood swings can sometimes evoke psychosis.   Yet no matter how many doctors testified to Yates' mental decline, the legal issue hinged on only her mental state at the time of the offense.  As Yates drowned her children one by one, even chasing down seven-year-old Noah to drag him to the tub, did she really have any awareness that what she was doing was wrong?  If so, then awareness implies the ability to choose.

Past juries have been convinced that even the delusional can see the moral implication of their behavior.     Jeffrey Dahmer, the Wisconsin man who in 1991 confessed to killing 17 men, is one case in point. He admitted he'd drilled holes into the heads of some of his victims to create living zombies.  He'd also envisioned building a shrine from their skulls.

Jeffrey Dahmer
Jeffrey Dahmer

Yet Dr. Park Dietz pointed out Dahmer's rational acts: When confronted by the police with one of his intended victims, he invented a misleading story and then took the young man home to kill him.   He was mentally ill, yes, but he also knew that what he was doing would land him in prison and he obviously exercised some control.  Thus, he was legally sane. 

Kendra Webdale, victim & Andrew Goldstein
Kendra Webdale, Andrew Goldstein

Andrea Yates knew that, too.   In fact, she believed that the state's punishment for what she had done would finally defeat Satan.  She fully expected to be jailed and even to be executed.  Her case is similar to that of Andrew Goldstein, who in 1998 pushed Kendra Webdale in front of a Manhattan subway train, killing her instantly.  He then leaned against a wall and said, "It was her turn."  Like Yates, he'd felt compelled and also like Yates, he had stopped taking medication prescribed to alleviate the symptoms of schizophrenia.  Despite seeing evidence of his psychosis in a video-taped confession, the jury convicted him of second-degree murder.

This gap between legal insanity and our evolving knowledge about mental illness has roots in a court decision in 1843.   In England, Daniel M'Naghten felt persecuted by imaginary spies so he shot the Prime Minister's secretary.  He did intend to kill, but his cognitive impairment was such that the court used his case to formulate a test of insanity: the defendant must not know the nature of his act or understand that it's wrong.

American courts eventually    adopted this standard.  Despite reforms, the court's confidence in free will yields little room for behavior driven by distorted perceptions.  In Texas, Yates was presumed sane unless her team could show that she did not know that what she did was wrong.  This is partly due to the shift in their standards in 1983, after John Hinkley's assassination attempt on President Reagan ended up in NGRI.  Public outrage prompted many states, including Texas, rethink NGRI.  They enacted the more restrictive terms of mere knowledge of right and wrong.  If you know, then you aren't insane.  That's that.  

Andrea Yates waited that morning for her husband to leave, knew murder was a sin, expected to be punished, and called 911, so it appears that she could control her behavior. Yet that argument depends on a simplistic idea about the relationship between awareness and choice.  It may be time to legally recognize that even someone who knows the law can still be seriously impaired regarding how they conform to that law.

Mental Health Weekly published an article   that the Yates case has made lawmakers and mental health officials in Texas take another look at the issues, in particular with regard to more funding for the state's mental health system.  State representative Garnet Coleman, a mental health advocate, indicated that he intended to introduce legislation to revise and refine the insanity defense laws.  Legislators will be considering whether to return to a former Texas standard of acknowledging a person's inability to conform their behavior to what they know about right and wrong.  It will be interesting to see what results.

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