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Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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Yates Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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A Harris County jury has found Andrea Yates not guilty by reason of insanity during her second capital murder trial for the drowning deaths of her children in the family’s bathtub in 2001.

Houston Chronicle headline | my Yates verdict post on Metroblogging Houston | Video

I met Yates’ attorney George Parnham on two occasions, once just after the original verdict in the Yates case had come in, when Mark Yanis, an attorney (and UHLC alum) who taught co-taught an excellent course in Law & Psychology I took as an undergrad at the University of Houston, had him address the class on the insanity defense. He seemed to indicate at the time that Yates was clearly insane in his opinion and doctors had relatively little optimism of a cure. It’s likely she’ll be spending the rest of her life in a high-security treatment center.

Seeing the reaction to this is pretty interesting. The understanding of insanity seems to be the single biggest differentiator. For instance:

Maybe one kid while she was giving them a bath and flipped out for a bit, but five? FIVE KIDS? She had to go get the kids and drown them one by one. (modeps)

One of her children escaped mid-drowning and SHE CHASED HIM DOWN AND PUT HIM BACK UNDER THE WATER…. Does this sound like temporary insanity to you? No, it sounds well-thought out. (from a myspace blog)

This seems to equate insanity to ‘flipping out’, as in a lack of control. Control, though, I don’t think is the issue in this case. Defense didn’t argue that she did this in the heat of passion, but that she was operating under a strong, very wrong belief that she had to kill her children in order to save them from hell. Defense argues that she knew exactly what she was doing, but she didn’t understand that it was wrong. Another example of a common reaction I’m seeing –

I’m sure all the ladies are going to come out of the wood-work and try to defend her under the guise of post partium depression and to you I say THERE IS NO EXCUSE FOR MURDER, especially the murder of children. This is a growing trend in this country and I think it’s gotten to the point of being a little too convenient of an excuse. (back to boston)

Let me me point out the difference between post-partum depression, which is relatively common and does not usually result in mothers killing their children, and post-partum psychosis, which indicates the presence of hallucinations and delusional beliefs, loss of contact with reality and frequently exhibiting bizarre behavior.

the Appeal
As to the appeal, this was really interesting in this case. A truism for lawyers, you never ask a witness a question you don’t know the answer to. Parnham said that in his cross-examination of a witness for the prosecution, Dr. Park Dietz, it came up that Dietz was a consultant on the show Law & Order. Wrapping up, Parnham asked Dietz what he considered a throw-away question – if he had ever seen anything like the Yates case on Law & Order. Dietz testified, to Parnham’s horror, something to the effect that shortly before the drownings, a Law & Order episode had in fact aired in which a woman drowned her children and got off by reason of insanity. The damage lies in the fact that the jury could read into that testimony that Yates, who, it was established, was a fan of the show, had seen the episode and had conjured the condition as an excuse for escaping punishment. Parnham later got a call from a producer of the show to confirm that in fact such an episode never existed. At the time, Parnham had just started the appeal and I had to admit I didn’t give him much of a chance on the appeal or a new trial.

I haven’t watched the case too closely, I’ll try to get a hold of the case materials in the not too distant future. Comments are open.

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