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Andrea Yates in the Garden
of Good and Evil

February 20, 2002

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

Behind the murder trial lurks the age-old question: What state of mind will relieve a defendant of criminal responsibility for his or her actions?

We live in a culture that elevates internal motives over visible behavior. Good intentions are praised even though repercussions may be dismal.

By the same token, the "progressive" thinking that surrounds criminal cases these days seems to demand that we examine the background of a defendant to come up with an explanation, any explanation, other than the obvious one the existence of evil.

Belief in the notion that evil is something very real requires one to embrace a worldview that is unacceptable to most of the cultural elite. But since Sept. 11, the nation has been more attuned to the reverberations of good and evil. And the trial of Andrea Yates is likely to turn upon her understanding of these simple timeless concepts.

In his opening statement, Yates' lawyer, George Parnham, tried to convince the jury that Yates could not appreciate the moral and legal qualities of her actions. "She not only didn't know what she was doing, but she believed it was right. She did not appreciate the lawfulness of her acts," Parnham told the jury.

The prosecutor, on the other hand, had to show that Yates could understand and comprehend what human beings instinctively know that some actions are clearly wrong. The prosecutor, Joe Owmby, told the jury, "She knew it was illegal, that it was a sin, that it was wrong."

This idea that we have an innate understanding of right and wrong is actually the legal philosophy upon which our nation is founded. It is known as natural law. Because of natural law, every person is assumed to have an inner knowledge of the distinction. This is good. That is evil.

In order for the defense to persuade the fact-finding jury that its client cannot distinguish right from wrong, it will have to show that she was in a state of mind that was delusional to the point where she did not know what she was doing.

Testimony given on the first day has some profound significance in this regard, not only because it was the first testimony heard by the jury, but also because it strikes at the very heart of that fundamental question.

The jury listened to two of the 911 calls that Yates placed just minutes after the children stopped breathing. In asking the police to come to her home, Yates said, "I just need them to come."

"Do you have a disturbance?" The dispatcher asked. "Are you ill?"

"Yes," replied Yates. "I'm ill."

"You sure you're alone?"

"No," Yates said. "My kids are here."

In determining the mental state of Andrea Yates, the importance that the jury ultimately assigns to these words cannot be overstated. The defense lawyer said as much when he uttered, "I have a feeling we are playing semantics here."

In determining state of mind, all the jury can rely upon are external manifestations. Things like facial expressions, eye contact and body movements become extremely critical.

One of the police officers, Frank Stumpo, testified that he had asked Andrea Yates if she realized what she'd done. Stumpo indicated that Yates made eye contact and that she responded. She looked directly at him and said three words that, no doubt, the prosecutor will repeat in the weeks to come: "Yes I do."

We can expect the usual "battle of the experts." The defense has already chosen its expert, Dr. Phil Resnick, from Case Western Reserve University Medical School, an individual whose past experience includes work with analyses of Jeffery Dahmer, Susan Smith and Ted Kaczynski.

Yates' lawyers have to answer some very important questions in order to establish an insanity defense. The fact that Yates' doctors will testify to her severe mental illness raises questions about those very same doctors' credibility.

If Yates was that mentally ill, why did her doctors allow her to remain in the home?

If Yates did not have comprehension to the point of being able to commit a systematic set of murders, how was she was able to effectively home-school her children, which involves a sophisticated level of organization?

How, in this state of mind, was Yates able to allegedly chase down her children one by one and physically hold their heads under water until they no longer breathed?

And after having done so, how then did she have the presence of mind to calmly use the phone and inform her husband and the police?

There is no better way to decide such difficult questions than through use of our imperfect, but yet unmatched, trial by a jury of one's peers.

Hopefully, jurors will keep in mind that mental illness may offer an explanation as to why such a horrible act was committed in the first place. But only under very exceptional circumstances should mental illness ever be used as an excuse.

Reproduced with the permission of . All rights reserved

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James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.

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