Butterfly Cauldron

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Finally. Compassion.

I know this will not be a popular verdict in may places, but Andrea Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity in her re-trial today.

The 42-year-old will be committed to a state mental hospital, with periodic hearings before a judge to determine whether she should be released. If convicted of murder, she would have faced life in prison.

Yates’ attorneys never disputed that she drowned 6-month-old Mary, 2-year-old Luke, 3-year-old Paul, 5-year-old John and 7-year-old Noah in their Houston-area home in June 2001. But they said she suffered from severe postpartum psychosis and, in a delusional state, believed Satan was inside her and was trying to save them from hell.

I can think of no greater punishment for this woman than to live with the knowledge that she killed her children. A lot of people will doubtlessly say that this verdict excuses her crime, or does not bring justice to her children. I disagree, but I can see their point. However, I'd say to those people that they've probably never lived with a mental illness and felt firsthand it's crippling effects.

Yates had a documented history of severe mental illness. She had been to multiple doctors and hospitals, on many, many medications. She needed to be committed for longterm care, but that never happened for her. I've heard reports that her husband didn't want that for her, I've heard reports that other people in her family didn't want that and objected. I cannot say if those stories are true, but if they are, I would not be surprised. Most people have no real concept of just how sick mental illness makes you. There are diseases that you can't just take a pill for. They don't go away because you want them to, they don't go away because you get a prescription. Complex mental illness requires medication and therapy, sometimes intensive therapy away from the typical living situation.

I get a little angry at her ex-husband. She was told after the birth of her fourth son not to have any more children, because of the severity of her PPD. Her doctors warned her that a recurrance was almost guaranteed and would likely be worse, if she had another child. And yet...and yet, they had a fifth child.

I get angry knowing how very religious her family/friends/she was, how unhealthy that was for her. Demanding, fundamentalist religions are bad for women, clearly, but it's very hard to make people understand that when they're in the middle of them. For years, the Yates' family lived in a small travel-bus. They were deeply committed to their faith, and the gender roles it proscribed. On it's own, that's something a person can survive. But combine those teachings with severe mental illness and you've got the makings of a tragedy.

Once she had been on medication consistantly and under treatment by doctors, Yates came out of her PPP. She knows, now, what she did. Can you imagine, just for a moment, what it would be like to know that you held your children under water until they died? Can you imagine, just for a moment, what it's like to realize that you're responsible for that? Does anyone think, really think, that this verdict does anything to ease her guilt and grief? I don't have children, but if I did, the thought that I had hurt one of them....I'd probably kill myself.

I say this is compassion, because at least she can get treatment and medication. At least she can have the chance to pull some kind of life together. There are people who believe she shouldn't be allowed to do that, that she should be allowed to do anything but suffer endlessly. Sadly, most of those people claim to be Christians. But I remember Jesus talking about forgiveness and redemption and second/third/1,000th chances. Five lives have already been lost, what good does it do to throw away a sixth? No amount of retribution is going to bring any of those children back. Doesn't Andrea Yates have a soul? Doesn't she have value, even as flawed as she is?

I don't mean those questions to sound like some flaming liberal (even though I am.) I mean those seriously. I don't see how there are easy answers in cases like this for truly thoughtful people.

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posted by Zan at 6:13 PM


I was relieved when I read the verdict.

This is a beautiful piece. Thank you for describing the effects of mental illness. Without it, any description or discussion of Andrea Yates is not even half-formed. I agree with you that there is no worse punishment.

4:56 AM  

Unfortunately, mental illness is not well understood, particularly down here in Jesusland. But that's a different post :) Which I'll have to do, I think. I just cannot think the human mind can come up with a punishment worse for her than the one she's inflicting on herself by her actions.

7:23 AM  

Another thing not a lot of people seem to realize is that a "not guilty by reason of insanity" sentence is definitely NOT the same as getting off. Most people end up spending more time in in-patient treatment than they would in jail if convicted. Maybe not in a life sentence case, but in most cases. And it's not like treatment is going to be in some jacuzzi-equipped island rehab center. I'm definitely a believer in the insanity plea. Like anything else, it can be abused, but it certainly has its place in the system.

7:22 PM  

Absolutely. I think we truly show what sort of society we are and what we truly value in how we treat 'the least of these.' Do we have mercy or do we demand blood? Do we insist upon destroying another life or do we try to salvage what's been lost? No one disputes she killed her children. No one. So it's not a question of assigning guilt. We know where that lies. It's a matter of deciding what we value and what we want to be known for. Nothing that jury could have done would ever bring those children back, nor would it ever make right what's been done to them. It wouldn't make right what's been done to her, either. No one wins in a situation like this, but we may be able to salvage some hope from the ashes.

7:39 PM  

I felt she was doomed because the party line is that women who kill children must fry, especially in death-rules! Texas.

I was surprised they could have a "fair" second trial when, between that one and the first, Law & Order: Criminal Intent ripped off her life in a way that was closer than other "headlines."

Another woman who killed her children was deemed insane because she admitted it when she called 911.

This is a fine example of how men aren't held accountable for their families and women are lesser citizens among the already ignored mentally ill.

7:58 PM  

Add to that the fact that women are more often diagnosed with mental illness than men, it makes the whole set of diseases "feminine" somehow, and we all have seen how "feminine" in this society is marginalized. (Not to say that men don't have equally high rates of mental illness, just that they tend to avoid doctors/counselors/therapists so they don't get diagnosed as often as women. Due, I think, to the view that mental illness is somehow a "woman's disease" and therefore a sign of weakness.)

I wasn't so surprised this time around, that she was able to get a fair outcome. There's been several years since the initial trial and I think people have had time to really think about what happened and what she now has to endure daily. Plus, with the death penalty off the table, there's room for a little compassion. And frankly, the woman was fucking insane! No one kills five children like that without some sort of mental aberration and given her history? It was so blatant...

8:03 PM  

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