by Tom Mitsoff
Merriam-Websterís Collegiate Dictionary has it as the following:
1 a : a deranged state of the mind usually occurring as a specific
disorder (as schizophrenia) and usually excluding such states as mental
retardation, psychoneurosis, and various character disorders b : a
2 : such unsoundness of mind or lack of understanding as prevents one
from having the mental capacity required by law to enter into a
particular relationship, status, or transaction or as removes one from
criminal or civil responsibility
3 a : extreme folly or unreasonableness b : something utterly foolish or
Donít all of the above seem to describe a mother of five children who
would systematically kill them, one by one, by drowning them in the
family bathtub last June 20?
A Texas jury didnít see it that way, and found Andrea Yates guilty of
two counts of capital murder earlier this month.
Yates, 37, confessed to the drownings but pleaded not guilty by reason
of insanity. After a two-week trial in which her defense argued that she
did not know her conduct was wrong, a jury of eight women and four men
found her guilty after only 3 Ĺ hours of deliberation.
Yates told psychiatrists she drowned the children because they were not
"righteous" and would burn in hell if she did not take their lives while
they were still innocent. That in and of itself would seem to indicate a
knowledge of the nature of the actions, albeit based on her
understanding of Godís law as opposed to Texas law.
But a 1999 psychiatric evaluation by physicians in Texas resulted in a
diagnosis of postpartum depression with psychosis. Postpartum (following
birth) depressions are not uncommon, but for most women they are
transitory and pass without major incident. However, some become
full-blown depressions with psychoses, which are mental derangements
characterized by defective or lost contact with reality.
The medical report indicated that she had been hospitalized after
attempting overdose with prescription medication, and later was under
observation after her husband had to forceably remove a knife which she
was holding to her own neck. Call it insanity or call it mental illness,
but the woman had a history of impaired judgement.
The insanity defense dates to 1843, when Daniel MíNaghten was acquitted
for attempting to assassinate British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel.
MíNaghten attempted to stalk Peel, but mistook Peel's secretary, Ed
Drummond, for Peel. M'Naghten shot and wounded Drummond, who
subsequently died. The evidence at trial showed M'Naghten had delusions
of persecution. An insanity plea was entered with the claim that the
crime was the result of M'Naghten's delusion. The facts that M'Naghten
had killed in broad daylight without any plan of escape were seen as
very important, as was the defense claim that M'Naghten could not
distinguish between right and wrong. The jury deliberated for less than
two minutes before returning a verdict of not guilty by reason of
As the result of that verdict and public outcry, a new code was adopted
in Britain which also became the standard in most of the United States.
Insanity was strictly defined under that code, and the delusions that
the defendant suffered had to be so strong that he either did not
understand his actions or was unable to appreciate their wrongfulness.
In the next century, insanity laws were expanded. A person might be
found not guilty if his delusions were so strong he could not control
his behavior even if he recognized others would see them as wrong.
When John Hinckley Jr. was acquitted of the attempted assassination of
President Reagan in 1981 based on that definition of insanity, laws in
Texas and across the country were changed to eliminate the provision
allowing a defendant to claim the inability to control his conduct as
While the definition of insanity has been consistent in the dictionary,
the same canít be said for the legal system's definition. Review is
needed for the process of law which would allow someone with such a
history of mental illness like Yates to be sentenced to life in prison
without any possibility for reconsideration if she is able to get
treatment and somehow get well. And there is precedent for the legal
system to make changes in the way it defines and adjudicates insanity.
Tom Mitsoff is a daily newspaper editor and syndicated
editorial columnist. His web address is