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Andrea Yates, 10 years later
March 20, 2012 7:25 AM   Subscribe

"Andrea Yates' story tracks so many of the themes we talk about all the time today. The role of religion in family life. The cognitive dissonance of so many marriages. Lingering stigmas about mental illness, especially as they relate to postpartum depression. The Yates trial was a big deal 10 years ago — even though it was overshadowed by the fallout from 9/11." The Atlantic looks back at the Andrea Yates case and how she's doing now.
posted by Brandon Blatcher (145 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
They should never let her out of psychiatric care for her own good and for societal piece of mind.
posted by Renoroc at 7:29 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just last week I came across a pretty good psychiatrist's lecture on the case on Youtube. It's almost an hour long, but it's a good place to go if you want the clinical perspective.
posted by echo target at 7:34 AM on March 20, 2012 [5 favorites]


They should never let her out of psychiatric care for her own good and for societal piece of mind.

I disagree. I think that psychiatric medicine has improved, and will continue to improve. If there is a medical cocktail that works, and she follows up with regular evaluation, why should she be locked up?
posted by kellyblah at 7:40 AM on March 20, 2012 [12 favorites]


They should never let her out of psychiatric care for her own good and for societal piece of mind.
posted by Renoroc at 9:29 AM on March 20 [+] [!]


Yes, she should be locked away forever for daring to make herself mentally ill. I mean what a selfish bitch, choosing to suffer a serious medical condition like she did.

Throw away the key!
posted by WinnipegDragon at 7:46 AM on March 20, 2012 [17 favorites]


This was such a tragic case. I grew up in Houston and lived there for many years (until 2004), and I remember it well, so I'm glad to see an update. I hope she continues to get all the help and care she needs.

One of the things they don't talk about is how the murders happened in the wake of TS Allison, which was the most terrifying weather experience I've ever lived through, with the water just rising and rising and rising and the rain coming and coming and coming. Personally I've always been convinced that it was a factor in when Yates snapped, because if I was that terrified living in the highest part of town ("the Heights" which is about 20' higher than nearby areas), it must have been even worse down by the water in Clear Lake.
posted by immlass at 7:48 AM on March 20, 2012 [8 favorites]


If there is a medical cocktail that works, and she follows up with regular evaluation, why should she be locked up?

Because she's still in contact with her husband, and could presumably return to her former career of reluctant baby factory.
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:49 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Because she's still in contact with her husband, and could presumably return to her former career of reluctant baby factory.

Then lock up her husband.
posted by lydhre at 7:51 AM on March 20, 2012 [24 favorites]


Then let's lock up any woman with a possible mental illness whom is in an abusive relationship. It's the only way, really.
posted by kellyblah at 7:52 AM on March 20, 2012 [8 favorites]


"But the truth is that everyone failed Andrea Yates."

Exactly. So many indicators that something was amiss and so few responded.

All I read is a woman that was trapped in so many oppressive systems.

A sad message to this article is that our jails are becoming our new mental health institutions.

I would have liked to see more gender analysis on this issue. If remember right – women are more likely to kill children under 5 years old. And women are more severely punished for such crimes.
posted by what's her name at 7:54 AM on March 20, 2012 [8 favorites]


Yes, she should be locked away forever for daring to make herself mentally ill. I mean what a selfish bitch, choosing to suffer a serious medical condition like she did.
posted by WinnipegDragon


We must accept the possibility that this woman is damaged beyond repair, and that she must be kept locked up to protect herself and others. That this woman is simply lost to us, beyond our ability to help.

Then we must turn our murderous eyes on who drove her to this. Was it drugs? Hell, if it had been drugs this would have been motive enough to shoot about 10000 black people. But it wasn't drugs, was it?

"My children were not righteous," Yates said. "I let them stumble. They were doomed to perish in the fires of hell."

Well then if it was god's salesmen then all is fine.
posted by CautionToTheWind at 7:56 AM on March 20, 2012


Our justice system is not well-equipped to deal with cases like hers. Very sad.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:57 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Because she's still in contact with her husband, and could presumably return to her former career of reluctant baby factory.

He's remarried, reportedly, and she is nearly 50 years old. This seems like a highly unlikely outcome.

Jesus.
posted by trunk muffins at 8:04 AM on March 20, 2012 [32 favorites]


Then let's lock up any woman with a possible mental illness whom is in an abusive relationship. It's the only way, really.

That's too extreme. Give her four chances, but if she kills a fifth child, we might just possibly decide to lock her up. Unless that might stigmatize mental illness a bit too much. In which case we should probably just gently remind her to take her meds and ask if she wouldn't prefer a house with just a shower stall.
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:05 AM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


She killed 5 children. Do you really think she is going to be "normal"?

Hypothetical question:
A "cured" Andrea Yates is released and decides to open a day care center with extremely reasonable rates and hours. Are you ever going to patronize her establishment?
posted by Renoroc at 8:05 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I find it amazing that none of the articles mention that she was a part of the Quiverfull movement - a movement that believes that women should have as many children as possible.

Right-wing extreme Christianity and the attendant views on the role of women and children played a huge role in Yates' life. Why ignore it?
posted by allen.spaulding at 8:07 AM on March 20, 2012 [57 favorites]


The situation and case is fascinating as it makes me think of scales and justice and do they, could they ever balance in a situation like this. That's so much that went wrong here and that final act was so aggravatingly preventable (She was deemed unsafe to be left alone and the killings happened in the hour between her husband leaving for work and her mother coming over to watch her).

It makes me wonder what forgiveness in this situation looks like, what goes through her mind, what a cure would be in this instance. And as much as society is looking at Andrea Yates, for understandable reasons, should we be looking at those around her, her family and husband and the system that could she was troubled, but could not understand how far gone she was?

We do not have an idea for justice in this case, if there is any.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:12 AM on March 20, 2012 [6 favorites]


I was very moved by Vyckie Garrison's (of No Longer Quivering, a blog for men and women who have left the Quivering/family submission movement) ruminations on the age of accountability and the concept of hell.
posted by muddgirl at 8:12 AM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


She killed 5 children. Do you really think she is going to be "normal"?

I don't know, neither do you. What do the court-appointed expert doctors say?
posted by WinnipegDragon at 8:12 AM on March 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


> Hypothetical question: A "cured" Andrea Yates is released and decides to open a day care center with extremely reasonable rates and hours. Are you ever going to patronize her establishment?

This is a ridiculous hypothetical that is functionally indistinguishable from trolling. The article already states that she intends to work as a veterinary assistant.
posted by Burhanistan at 8:12 AM on March 20, 2012 [29 favorites]


Right-wing extreme Christianity and the attendant views on the role of women and children played a huge role in Yates' life. Why ignore it?

Because they play a huge role, willingly or not, in the lives of most US inhabitants and we have to ignore it as much as possible lest we go mad from fear/cognitive dissonance.

THEYDONTEXISTTHEYCANTHURTMETHEYDONTEXISTTHEYDONTBELIEVESUCHIDIOCY!
posted by aramaic at 8:22 AM on March 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


The conservative talk radio guy Michael Berry who does the prime time afternoon drive show on the same station the Astros games are on was a real hoot on the Andrea Yates case. He is a cheerleader for putting criminals to death. His big schtick is going hooray and yahoo whenever they have one of the (frequent) executions at Huntsville. If you want to listen to the Astros and you don't have the game time memorized this shithead is unavoidable. It is one of the few terrible features of cultural life in Houston which is otherwise a mostly perfectly civilized place as far as I can tell.
posted by bukvich at 8:24 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Our justice system is not well-equipped to deal with cases like hers. Very sad.

In cases like hers, it's less about justice and more about vengeance. Sad is a woeful understatement.
posted by MissySedai at 8:25 AM on March 20, 2012


Unless that might stigmatize mental illness a bit too much. In which case we should probably just gently remind her to take her meds and ask if she wouldn't prefer a house with just a shower stall.

Can we please say what we mean rather than making sarcastic hypothetical statements the true sentiment of which are difficult to parse because otherwise I am going to go fucking apeshit in this thread.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:30 AM on March 20, 2012 [17 favorites]


While we're speaking what we mean: this is an outrageously bad piece of journalism and the continued silence of the rise of dominionism and christian patriarchy is yet another stain on an industry that is covered with them.

This is a man that has won many awards for journalism and this is a piece in a high profile magazine that will receive a lot of coverage. And it ignores one of the central components of a major story - a complex issue that directly pertains to ongoing cultural and political issues of the present. Then again, this is journalism we're talking about.
posted by allen.spaulding at 8:47 AM on March 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


Can we please say what we mean rather than making sarcastic hypothetical statements the true sentiment of which are difficult to parse

Fine. I was earnestly saying:

"she killed five fucking kids. She killed her own kids. There is absolutely no better way to illustrate that she has absolutely no empathy. And people are suggesting letting her join the general population to make a point about the stigmatization of mental illness? Holy shit! At what point does someone prove that they are too broken to be included in society at large? It's a virtue to care about the afflicted, but pretending that a five-time familial infanticide has any business among the rest of us is ridiculous posturing or thorough blinding by ideals!"

That's what I was saying.
posted by Mayor Curley at 8:53 AM on March 20, 2012 [19 favorites]


I note that lots of people in the Zimmerman/Martin thread said that Zimmerman appears to be a mentally ill man who killed a teenager, and deserves to have the book thrown at him, but here, mental illness is a reason to release someone who murdered 5 children. I mean, I understand the impulse, and I'm not even sure it's wrong, but it is worth noting, and perhaps it's worth asking why that feeling is so prevalent.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 8:54 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


perhaps it's worth asking why that feeling is so prevalent.

It's because if I imagine my son being killled by a stranger, I get angry, and if I imagine my son being killed by his mother, that's my wife.
posted by escabeche at 8:58 AM on March 20, 2012 [6 favorites]


We must accept the possibility that this woman is damaged beyond repair, and that she must be kept locked up to protect herself and others. That this woman is simply lost to us, beyond our ability to help.
I do accept that this is possible. I do not accept that this is probably, or likely, or usually the case, generally, or the case here.
posted by MrMoonPie at 8:58 AM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


she killed five fucking kids. She killed her own kids. There is absolutely no better way to illustrate that she has absolutely no empathy.

Yates's depressed mind was convinced that she was damning her kids to eternal hellfire because she was a bad mother. Drowning her kids in the bathtub would ensure her kids eternity in heaven. Echoing Vyckie Garrison, "Wouldn’t that be the ultimate sacrifice?"
posted by muddgirl at 8:59 AM on March 20, 2012 [6 favorites]


> Hypothetical question: A "cured" Andrea Yates is released and decides to open a day care center with extremely reasonable rates and hours. Are you ever going to patronize her establishment?

I'm fairly weary of the complete fairness of capitalism, but not even the most anti-capitalist of trolls could think that the invisible hand of the market wouldn't solve this "hypothetical question" quite easily, reasonable rates be damned.

I hope Yates continues to get the help she needs and deserves, and I hope that her lawyer is right that some good is coming from this horrible tragedy.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 9:11 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


pretending that a five-time familial infanticide has any business among the rest of us is ridiculous posturing

Not at all. I'd much rather live next door to a lady who killed her kids ten years ago than, say, a convicted thief and burglar. She's probably not much danger to you or I, as full-grown adults not under her care. She shouldn't work in child care, of course, and she ought to be closely supervised and probably kept away from her ex-husband, if that's possible. If that's all she needs, though, keeping her in a mental hospital is a terribly restrictive and expensive way to do that.

Of course, I'll defer to the psychiatrists who actually work with her as to whether or not she's ready for something like that. No one here is qualified to make that call. But I would put the bar for "too broken to be included in society" pretty high.
posted by echo target at 9:14 AM on March 20, 2012 [15 favorites]


And people are suggesting letting her join the general population to make a point about the stigmatization of mental illness?

I have not seen this argument presented anywhere.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:18 AM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


I have not seen this argument presented anywhere.

I think it'd be fun to make random arguments like this. We should Parole Charles Manson to teach those Wall Street Fat Cats a lesson. Free Mumia in order to make a subtle point about stem cell research!
posted by allen.spaulding at 9:24 AM on March 20, 2012 [7 favorites]


It's a virtue to care about the afflicted, but pretending that a five-time familial infanticide has any business among the rest of us is ridiculous posturing or thorough blinding by ideals!

That is the question that interests me here, can she be sent free? Should she? What are the implications for her mental state, do the best doctors even know? If she can't be released, what should society do with her? If medicine can make her sane, should it, because wouldn't doing so drive her insane? Was she even insane, in such a stressful situation?

So many questions.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 9:32 AM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


> Hypothetical question: A "cured" Andrea Yates is released and decides to open a day care center with extremely reasonable rates and hours. Are you ever going to patronize her establishment?

This is a ridiculous hypothetical that is functionally indistinguishable from trolling. The article already states that she intends to work as a veterinary assistant.


No, it's a perfectly reasonable hypothetical. She's cured obviously, unless you are some idiot who doubts the doctors, so why not let her run the day care?
posted by furiousxgeorge at 9:35 AM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


"she killed five fucking kids. She killed her own kids. There is absolutely no better way to illustrate that she has absolutely no empathy. And people are suggesting letting her join the general population to make a point about the stigmatization of mental illness? Holy shit! At what point does someone prove that they are too broken to be included in society at large? It's a virtue to care about the afflicted, but pretending that a five-time familial infanticide has any business among the rest of us is ridiculous posturing or thorough blinding by ideals!"

She was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Ted Bundy killed because he was a sociopath and had no empathy. Andrea Yates killed because she was in the grips of delusions that made her believe that killing her children was the most empathetic thing to do. Sincere, non-snarky question: do you not believe there's a difference?
posted by scody at 9:36 AM on March 20, 2012 [28 favorites]


'Cured' is not a thing w/r/t mental health issues.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:38 AM on March 20, 2012 [6 favorites]


It was at her second trial that she was not guilty by reason of insanity. At the first trial she was convicted and the prosecutors were going for the damn death penalty. It is a fascinating case.

I doubt there is any punishment short of physical torture that could be imposed upon her that would be worse than what she has already suffered.
posted by bukvich at 9:42 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


On thing we do know, women who have done something similar killed themselves after the fog lifted.

Something like a quarter of women who murder their children later commit suicide. (This is a messy set as some women do all the killing in one manic episode, or in a deep depression, or whatever and in other cases there are years, years spent the way Yates is spendibetween, between the kids and the suicide.)

I believe this is a concern for the people who are now overseeing her care.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 9:43 AM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


Yeah, who is claiming that she's 'cured?' This is all the articles say:
What Parnham is doing for his client now is trying to pitch a discharge plan that would gradually allow Yates to be released from confinement for short periods, "under security" as part of that acclimation process.
posted by muddgirl at 9:43 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Vengeance has no place in the criminal code. The brutality the U.S. criminal justice system visits upon the mentally ill, the cognitively deficient, juveniles and addicts serves no legitimate end and offers society nothing but vengeance, a visceral "fuck, yeh!", that does not rehabilitate offenders, does not frighten off others who might offend, does not repair victims or their families, does not make anyone safer in his bed at night or on the streets at day.

As for the trolling hypothetical about a cured Andrea Yates deciding to open a day care, her involuntary commitment for the killing of her children would pretty much preclude her from obtaining a license to work with children, regardless of how successful her treatment. And, if the woman has the mental health care and general societal support she so clearly needs, she would undoubtedly be dissuaded, if only to protect her the brutality of the internet, the fear-mongering of vegeance-seekers and hate of society in general.
posted by crush-onastick at 10:19 AM on March 20, 2012 [8 favorites]


My statement never said cured. I said it was a possibility -psychiatric medicine can and has advanced. My point is that mental illness can be overcome.
posted by kellyblah at 10:22 AM on March 20, 2012


As in the Hinckley case and all others who are found not guilty by reason of mental insanity, I think where one stands on letting such people out of these institutions comes down to whether you think "not guilty by reason of mental insanity" is a valid position.
In such cases, the system is set up such that the internee is evaluated by his/her mental healthcare givers and kept in the institution or locked up based upon their view of the internees mental state. Sometimes this mean the internee will be in a mental ward longer than they would have been in prison if s/he'd been convicted of the crime straight up.
If you don't believe there is such a thing as "not guilty by reason of mental insanity" then I understand the anger at letting such people out of wherever they've been contained. But, if you do believe its a valid defense, it means some people will be contained/treated longer than a "normal" sentence, and, having been successfully treated, some people will be let out sooner.
But the same people-mental health care specialists are the ones who decide who "gets" to plead not guilty by reason of mental insanity and who gets let free when treatment is successful. These are things entirely separate from the crime which brought the internee there. By definition, they were not responsible. The question is only whether they are healthy/safe enough now to be out in the community. It doesn't really matter how heinous their crimes.
All the yelling about locking her up forever is really saying: I think the first verdict should have stood.
posted by atomicstone at 10:43 AM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


some people will be contained/treated longer than a "normal" sentence, and, having been successfully treated, some people will be let out sooner.

This is true, but it's worth pointing out that the second scenario almost never happens. The vast majority of people who are decided not guilty by reason of insanity spend a longer time in mental institutions than they would have in prison. People sometimes seem to think that insanity is a get-out-of-jail-free card, but it's not the case. If you're accused of a crime and minimizing your restriction is your highest priority, you're better off pleading guilty. The insanity plea really is only for people who are actually sick.
posted by echo target at 10:56 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Ted Bundy killed because he was a sociopath and had no empathy. Andrea Yates killed because she was in the grips of delusions that made her believe that killing her children was the most empathetic thing to do. Sincere, non-snarky question: do you not believe there's a difference?

Yes, but I don't think it's a clean separation.

Bundy appeared to kill recreationally, for lack of a better term. He got satisfaction from the act of killing/feeling powerful; killing was the goal, not a method to reach a goal. That's so cold, so reptilian that you can't help but be repulsed by it.

This is complicated, so bear with me:

If I could accept the defense of Andrea Yates at face value, I wouldn't call her without empathy. I do believe that her presented "destroy the village to save it" motive was earnestly presented, in that it's what she believed at the time. However, I believe that position was actually a justification-- she was severely depressed, overwhelmed, and incapable of taking care of five children and cut off from help. She snapped and she killed the children to be rid of a burden that she could (legitimately) no longer carry. Whether she decided that she was sending them to heaven at the moment of decision to murder; or if she decompensated, killed the kids and later convinced herself of her good deed, her primal motivation was to be rid of the children.

I say this because I think even the most pious people have their suspicions about the afterlife. When a devout Christian dies, similarly devoted friends should be elated. After all, the dead go to a life much more wonderful and blissful than this one; and this life is just a fragment of time and the afterlife is for eternity. If you thought you were inadequate, it's a much safer bet to remove yourself from the equation.

I can't see inside her head, but it seems more likely to me that she was on some level able to see her children as an impediment to be removed. So I see her not as removed from humanity as Bundy, but not incredibly distant from him. I try to default to taking people's explanations of their emotions at their word, but I think when someone does something as horrific as Yates, you have license to weigh it.
posted by Mayor Curley at 11:17 AM on March 20, 2012


She was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Ted Bundy killed because he was a sociopath and had no empathy. Andrea Yates killed because she was in the grips of delusions that made her believe that killing her children was the most empathetic thing to do. Sincere, non-snarky question: do you not believe there's a difference?

I don’t believe there’s much of a difference, but more importantly, I don’t think it matters. Anyone who kills someone (not in self defense or similar circumstances) is crazy, mentally ill. A drunk driver is responsible for the deaths in a car wreck, no matter the extent of his alcoholism. What if you’re just really, really angry and kill someone?

My opinion is not about vengeance or anything like that. I’m not at all a "lock them all up" person, quite the opposite, I’ve just never understood the distinction of the insanity defense. If Andrea Yates was legally insane when she killed her kids that’s sad, and she should get help. But that’s all I think the judgement of insanity should apply to, the medical help you get. The sentence should be the same. I’m not going to judge her empathy level, her remorse, or the deep down goodness of her heart, because I can’t, and neither can anyone else. We only know what she did, and should only judge based on the logic of the circumstances, whether or not she could see logically at the time.

People do things. Wrong things. They regret them and live with the consequences.
posted by bongo_x at 11:27 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Anyone who kills someone (not in self defense or similar circumstances) is crazy, mentally ill. ... What if you’re just really, really angry and kill someone?

You are aware that there are both legal definitions of insanity and legal distinctions between degrees of murder and manslaughter, no?
posted by scody at 11:33 AM on March 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


As for the trolling hypothetical about a cured Andrea Yates deciding to open a day care, her involuntary commitment for the killing of her children would pretty much preclude her from obtaining a license to work with children

The point of the hypothetical was to ask if folks would trust her with their children, in answer to the question, "why should she be locked up?"

The point being, she should be locked up because she may be a danger to children she encounters in public even if the doctors are as confident as they can be in this kind of situation.

People disagreeing is not trolling and it doesn't help the conversation when you go there.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 11:36 AM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


You are aware that there are both legal definitions of insanity and legal distinctions between degrees of murder and manslaughter, no?

Vaguely. I’m not a lawyer, but I have watched Law and Order many times.
posted by bongo_x at 11:37 AM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


If you thought you were inadequate, it's a much safer bet to remove yourself from the equation.

Yates attempted suicide at least once.
posted by muddgirl at 11:39 AM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Mayor Curley, postpartum psychosis is a thing. No doubt Yates felt all those things but you're ignoring the very real possibility that she acted during a psychotic break. If she were thinking as clearly as you posit, wouldn't she have planned things better?
posted by dogrose at 11:39 AM on March 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


Some threads make you hope that you're never tried by a jury of your peers. Sheesh.
posted by Burhanistan at 11:40 AM on March 20, 2012 [22 favorites]


she was severely depressed, overwhelmed, and incapable of taking care of five children and cut off from help.

Note, she was also diagnosed as having postpartum psychosis.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:41 AM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Ted Bundy is a weird comparison. Homicide is the only thing they share.

If I had to pick a famous male killer who was somewhat analogous to Andrea Yates, it'd be John List, but even that's a stretch. They certainly both thought they themselves were failures as parents, and that they were doing their families a favor by sending them to Heaven.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:41 AM on March 20, 2012


If I had to pick a famous male killer who was somewhat analogous to Andrea Yates, it'd be John List.

I'd have gone with Leslie Van Houten.
posted by allen.spaulding at 11:46 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's because if I imagine my son being killled by a stranger, I get angry, and if I imagine my son being killed by his mother, that's my wife.

So you wouldn’t be angry?
posted by bongo_x at 11:47 AM on March 20, 2012


I wouldn't trust a mentally unstable person with the care and custody of anyone's child, no, but neither would I fear the existence of a mental unstable person in a world where children exist, even having once been assaulted in the middle of the night in my own home by a person in the middle of a psychotic break with reality.

Expecting the criminal justice system to take vengeance upon those people or expecting those people to be locked in rooms away from the good normal law-abiding people of the world for their natural lives does not fit my idea of a healthy society.
posted by crush-onastick at 11:49 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'd have gone with Leslie Van Houten.

She's female, not male, and her killings don't bear any resemblance to Yates' that I can see?
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:51 AM on March 20, 2012


her killings don't bear any resemblance to Yates' that I can see?

They were both members of a cult that actively sought to use them as a political tool?
posted by allen.spaulding at 11:53 AM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


They were both members of a cult that actively sought to use them as a political tool?

The comparison is way off. Manson directly instructed van Houten et al. to kill whom they killed, and the Family did not think that they were doing their victims a favor. The Quiverfull movement is certainly creepy and injurious, but the church was not telling anyone to kill anyone, let alone their own children.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:00 PM on March 20, 2012


Ted Bundy is a weird comparison. Homicide is the only thing they share.

I made the comparison because Mayor Curley asserted that Andrea Yates killed out of lack of empathy, and I wanted to highlight what I think is the absurdity of that argument when compared against someone who actually killed out of lack of empathy.
posted by scody at 12:01 PM on March 20, 2012


Oh, I'm not saying they're identical. I just sometimes wonder how we feel about Leslie Van Houten now. She was in a terrible situation that carried with it a pretty extreme degree of psychological trauma. It's not the same type of trauma as postpartum psychosis, but I wouldn't discount it. She's still in jail and I have the same types of feelings about her as I do about Yates.
posted by allen.spaulding at 12:03 PM on March 20, 2012


Expecting the criminal justice system to take vengeance upon those people or expecting those people to be locked in rooms away from the good normal law-abiding people of the world for their natural lives does not fit my idea of a healthy society.

First off, nobody here suggested vengeance, that is a thing people think but it isn't what people are talking about here.

Second, I doubt anyone here disagrees with the idea that in general the mentally ill should be treated well and welcomed in society, but in the extremely rare cases where the individuals in question are those who have committed mass murder, I think it's prudent to make an exception and keep such individuals in a comfortable, pleasant, humane facility.
posted by furiousxgeorge at 12:07 PM on March 20, 2012


Why mass murder, in particular? Getting back to Ted Bundy, for some reason - he didn't commit mass murder.

The fundamental issue for me, is danger. Is Andrea Yates a continuing danger to herself or others? If not, why not let her engage in supervised integration back into society? She gave of tons and tons and tons of warning signs that she was a danger before she committed mass murder - why is there an assumption that next time she'll just do it out of the blue?
posted by muddgirl at 12:14 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


why is there an assumption that next time she'll just do it out of the blue?

Probably because she broke a taboo on an unheard of scale, one that defies most attempts to understand.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:21 PM on March 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


Then lock up her husband.

Did he actually murder someone?
posted by karathrace at 12:21 PM on March 20, 2012


Second, I doubt anyone here disagrees with the idea that in general the mentally ill should be treated well and welcomed in society, but in the extremely rare cases where the individuals in question are those who have committed mass murder, I think it's prudent to make an exception and keep such individuals in a comfortable, pleasant, humane facility.

Well, I also get the impression from this conversation that most people believe she should get compassionate care, so I agree with you there. But I also get from this conversation that many people believe full stop she should never leave secure residential treatment and never have the hope or the option of leaving a secure mental health lock-up. While I agree that it's prudent to keep them there for some period of time, I disagree that we can say this person here must never be allowed to leave commitment. In my work--and you are right, there is not a lot of this in this conversation here--I hear a lot of screaming for vengeance in this context.

There's a lot of interesting stuff going on in US law in the modern world, where indefinite civil commitment is being used to punish people above and beyond what would have been possible under the criminal law and above and beyond their served criminal sentences. See stuff about US v. Comstock, for one example that really brings out the ugly in people.

And there's a lot of interesting stuff going on in US law right now about finally rejecting the notion of prison as proxy for hospital.

The two seem to come together in this horrific place that makes hospitals new civil prisons. Civil prisons without parole systems, without sentencing structures, without due process protections.

So, when I hear people trot out a parade of horribles which flow from the mere notion that Andrea Yates might some day have supervised release from a hospital in order to assist at an animal shelter, and say that she should not even have the option of one day leaving the hospital, I see thinking that considers indefinite civil commitment, even after a fair trial, an act of a just society. I cannot accept indefinite civil commitment as an act of a just society.

Perhaps this woman may never demonstrate to her doctors that she would be able to behave appropriately outside the hospital. Perhaps she'll never be well enough to live alone without care. Perhaps she'll always be a danger to herself or others. Maybe she will. Assuming the first and denying the chance for the latter is cruel, to my mind, and I hear in this conversation, people saying she should never be allowed to demonstrate sufficient control of herself, or demonstrate sufficient intervention of drugs and therapy, to permit a moment's liberty. That sounds a lot like a cry for vengeance to me.
posted by crush-onastick at 12:34 PM on March 20, 2012 [7 favorites]


Probably because she broke a taboo on an unheard of scale

While of course it's horrendous and quite rare, familicide is certainly not 'unheard-of', and neither is infanticide.
posted by muddgirl at 12:40 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oof, meant to say that it's not unheard-of, we just don't like to think about how fragile we all are. Much easier to assume that anyone who commits familicde or infanticide is a monster that may be treated with compassion, but not sympathy.
posted by muddgirl at 12:41 PM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Killing your child is taboo. Killing five of your children in the space of hour multiples that taboo in ways people have never considered. That was my only point.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:45 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Mayor Curley is being a bit hyperbolic, but I get where his criticisms come from. It's weird to see all this deference to mental health professionals: most of us would strongly reject this kind of coalition between faulty psychiatric knowledge-claims and juridical coercion in most other contexts. How many double-blind studies have they used to test the efficacy of this treatment for quintuple infanticides?

Hannah Arendt had a similar account of Adolf Eichmann. She thought he was a buffoon and a bit of a patsy, but she still thought it was okay for the Israelis to hang him:
"Just as you supported and carried out a policy of not wanting to share the earth with the Jewish people and the people of a number of other nations--as though you and your superiors had any right to determine who should and who should not inhabit the world--we find that no one, that is, no member of the human race, can be expected to share the world with you. This is the reason, and the only reason, you must hang."
Yates is a victim, but she's also a perpetrator; I think you have to keep that stereoscopic picture in your head and not close one eye or the other to just see the agent or the passive sufferer. She's both, and even a strict physical determinist should acknowledge that there were other solutions to her troubles than the one she chose.
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:53 PM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


It's weird to see all this deference to mental health professionals

I don't know why. They clearly said this woman should not be placed in these situations. They were repeatedly ignored.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 12:57 PM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


From the Wikipedia link:

Several nations including Canada, Great Britain, Australia and Italy recognize post partum mental illness as a mitigating factor in cases where mothers kill their children.[26] In the United States, such a legal distinction is not currently made.[26] Britain has had the Infanticide Act since 1922.

Funny how the laws of 1922 were more compassionate than some of the people in this thread.
posted by Summer at 1:05 PM on March 20, 2012 [6 favorites]


My point was that, taboo or no, it or something equally taboo (familicide) has happened at least 500 times in the US in the 20th century. That's one every two years.
posted by muddgirl at 1:06 PM on March 20, 2012


Re: Bundy, killing you children seems to require LESS empathy than killing strangers, to me anyway. I mean, if you can't feel for your kids, who can you feel for?
posted by grog at 1:14 PM on March 20, 2012


More to the point, it seems to me that if you kill strangers you can still love your kids. If you kill your kids, how could you love anyone?
posted by grog at 1:18 PM on March 20, 2012


even a strict physical determinist should acknowledge that there were other solutions to her troubles than the one she chose.

The important feature of this illness is that rational choice is impossible.
posted by klanawa at 1:18 PM on March 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


Bundy, killing you children seems to require LESS empathy than killing strangers, to me anyway. I mean, if you can't feel for your kids, who can you feel for?

She was insane, in the grips of delusions that made her believe that killing her kids was the best thing for them.
posted by scody at 1:26 PM on March 20, 2012 [11 favorites]


The important feature of this illness is that rational choice is impossible.

I know a lot of psychotics who've managed to go their entire lives, including long stretches unmedicated, without killing anyone. Yates had postpartum psychosis for a few months; she knew what she was doing and she knew that it was wrong, which is why she waited until she was unsupervised to do it.
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:29 PM on March 20, 2012


There are six generally accepted purposes for punishment in the criminal justice system, and our system uses all of them at various times in various ways. What the "right" punishment is for a certain person who commits a certain crime for a certain reason depends almost entirely on what your goal is in punishing them. When discussing Andrea Yates and people like her, it becomes very clear very quickly that we as a society really have no idea, or at least no broad agreement, about why we punish and what we're hoping to accomplish.

Retribution asks us to inflict suffering people for the wrongs they have done because the victims or society deserve vengeance. Torture, corporal punishment, and other punishments that make people suffer are in line with that rationale. Our harsh prison system, especially solitary confinement, is pretty good at accomplishing this, too. If we want retribution against Yates, we could slowly drown her in a bathtub, so she knows what it feels like. We could burn her with irons or beat her or just leave her in a cell alone for the rest of her life. Or, as some people have suggested (and as was suggested in the thread a few years ago about parents who accidentally leave their children to die in hot cars), it may be that the worst possible pain we could inflict would be in making sure she understands what a horrific thing she's done and then forcing her to live with the guilt for the rest of her life.

Restitution asks us to tailor punishments so that those who have committed wrongs are forced to mitigate those wrongs and literally repay, to the extent possible, the costs they have imposed on others. If that's the purpose we seek, we should have offenders working to earn money to compensate victims or working to better society as a whole. That's easier for property crimes, where people can repay what they've stolen or destroyed, but it's also the major backbone of the tort system, in which we make people pay money when they harm other people even when the harm was non-monetary. Obviously, there's nothing we can do to bring the Yates children back to life, but we could send Andrea Yates to forced labor for the rest of her life, with all the proceeds to go to victims of child abuse. Or we could try to mend her mental health to allow her to contribute in some positive way to making the world a better place.

Incapacitation means that punishments should render people unable to commit crimes. The death penalty is the ultimate incapacitation, but locking people away forever also accomplishes the goal. It could also include specific incapacitation, such as cutting off the hands of thieves, or forbidding pedophiles from being alone with children. Finally, many communities are experimenting with community based monitoring, such as house arrest or electronic ankle bracelets, as a more humane and less costly alternative. Here, I think the disagreement about mentally ill people who commit crimes is about how stringent measures must be to ensure that people are incapacitated. Do we trust a person with a history of deadly mental illness to live in society, even with supervision? Or do we feel safer with her locked away forever? This is the same fight that the Secret Service is having with St. Elizabeth's Hospital about John Hinckley right now. Hinckley's doctors say he's well enough to be trusted in the community with monitoring, while the government argues that he can never be trusted not to harm others.

Social deterrents means making an example of people so that others look at them and are deterred from doing what they did for fear of suffering the same consequences. Again, pain and suffering help here, but studies have shown that the most effective social deterrents are those that make punishment a certainty. Punishing everyone who commits a crime is more important to social deterrents than punishing them harshly, because you want people to know that they can't get away with it. If that's what we care about, we should likely not treat mentally ill criminal defendants any differently from any other criminal defendants, because if we make mental illness or anything else a perceived escape from punishment, even if it involves much-needed treatment, other people might think they can get away with their crimes. The general public apparently believes that insanity pleas are used successfully to avoid punishment in a huge percentage of cases (in fact, it is used in less than 1% of cases, and of those, it fails 74% of the time). But perception is what matters, so if we care more about societal deterrents than about other reasons for punishing, we should abolish insanity as a defense to crime.

Rehabilitation is, literally, trying to make people better so that they will be unwilling or unable to harm others in the future. For mentally ill criminals, therapy and treatment for substance abuse and mental health problems are a huge part of that. Non-mentally ill criminals should receive help in developing strong moral values consistent with society's values, as well as stress and anger management treatment to help them find ways to channel their impulses in better ways. In addition to that, if we're ever going to let people rejoin society, they need job training and help building family and community support structures to enable them to contribute productively to the world. This appears to be the primary goal of Andrea Yates's treatment, and I hope it's working. However, the criminal mental health system is woefully inadequate at providing adequate treatment, much less the support structures necessary to continue rehabilitation outside of the secured hospital setting.

Finally, there's the expressive theory of punishment. The idea is that society has certain ideas about right and wrong, and punishment allows us to speak with one voice about those views. The expressive theory has an educational component wherein people who are punished can serve as an example to others, as with the pillory or public executions. But mostly, I think a lot of people in this thread are right that we just find certain crimes horrifying, and we need an outlet to express our outrage and grief and anger at the enormity of these acts, regardless of who committed them or why. We're afraid on some level that letting Andrea Yates out, even if we don't need to keep her locked up to protect society or to keep her safe or to teach her something, sends a message that we're okay with what she did, that we've gotten over it. And since many people feel as though they'll never be able to forgive her, they feel that it would be wrong to send the message that she no longer needs to be punished.

The bottom line is that we as a society need to figure out what we want from punishment before we can figure out what methods best accomplish our goals. We don't even know why we have punishment as a general matter, much less our reasons for punishing Andrea Yates specifically. Is it because we're hoping to fix her so that she can rejoin society as a healthy person? Is it because we're angry at her and want her to suffer? Is it because we're afraid of her? Or is it because we have a lot of complicated feelings about why she did what she did, and while we feel sympathy for mentally ill people, we also feel icky when we think about her living a relatively normal life when her children are dead? Until we can sort out all those feelings and be really honest about our goals for criminal justice, we'll never be able to figure out how best to treat Andrea Yates or any of the millions of other people who have transgressed against our laws.
posted by decathecting at 1:39 PM on March 20, 2012 [18 favorites]


Then lock up her husband.

Did he actually murder someone?


He seems to have made quite an effort to keep his wife from getting good medical care. People in the restaurant industry sometimes have to carry it when a drunk patron hits a busload of nuns and kittens. I think hubby was a HUGE part of this.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 1:45 PM on March 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


> I think hubby was a HUGE part of this.

I suppose that's true, but the problem is that we're talking about the legal codes and specific applications of such, not so much all the loose baggage about people and what they should or shouldn't have been aware of. That's one reason why threads like this just kind of go in all kinds of odd and fruitless directions.
posted by Burhanistan at 1:46 PM on March 20, 2012


I don't want to derail the debate on the logic of releasing the mentally ill back into society, but one thing I never understood about this case, given Ms. Yates' prior (to the drownings) history of depression (postpartum and otherwise) and suicide attempts, is that the husband wasn't brought up on charges of child endangerment.

He was extremely controlling and clearly the dominant voice in the home. Her limited capacity to cope was well established and well documented, but this didn't change decisions to have more children or leave her alone with her children unassisted. It certainly can't be argued that she put on a herculean imitation of competent well being with the result that he and the rest of the family could justifiably claim to have been completely taken by surprise by a meltdown. (I have this unpleasant recollection of seeing a video clip of the mother-in-law (i.e., the husband's mother) protesting to the media that "Andrea was doing so well...")

So why did he escape any responsibility for what happened? To his children, whom he left alone with an unstable guardian?
posted by cool breeze at 1:55 PM on March 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


So why did he escape any responsibility for what happened? To his children, whom he left alone with an unstable guardian?

My hunch is that a squishy charge like child endangerment isn't as big and exciting and career-making and media-ready as the actual deaths of the children. (and also a little harder to work)
posted by Lesser Shrew at 2:04 PM on March 20, 2012


She was insane

WTF, so was Ted Bundy! Probably still is... I'm pretty sure that's my whole point.
posted by grog at 2:15 PM on March 20, 2012


WTF, so was Ted Bundy! Probably still is... I'm pretty sure that's my whole point.

Ted Bundy was a sociopath; he did not have delusional breaks from reality in which he believed that he was stalking, raping, torturing and killing his victims for their own good.

Also, he's been dead since 1989. I mean, just in case you're interested in any facts.
posted by scody at 2:18 PM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Yates is a victim, but she's also a perpetrator [...] even a strict physical determinist should acknowledge that there were other solutions to her troubles than the one she chose.

Her trouble was that her children were going to hell because she was raising them improperly and they were being influenced by Satan. She killed them to save them from the fires of hell.

Yes, I know that this is not what her troubles actually were. In reality she was crazy and overburdened and perhaps poorly medicated, but what she apparently believed was that her children were going to be tortured forever if they survived to the age of responsibility. Given her beliefs, what other solutions did she have? Any solution I can think of implicitly assumes that she knew she was delusional and could set that aside at will.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:36 PM on March 20, 2012


anotherpanacea: "I know a lot of psychotics who've managed to go their entire lives, including long stretches unmedicated, without killing anyone. "

Are you essentially saying that all psychotics are homicidal, and that those who do not act on their impulses have made a conscious choice not to? I guess it never occurred to you that they might not have those impulses in the first place?
posted by klanawa at 3:35 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


anotherpanacea: "I know a lot of psychotics who've managed to go their entire lives, including long stretches unmedicated, without killing anyone. Yates had postpartum psychosis for a few months"

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

"she knew what she was doing and she knew that it was wrong, which is why she waited until she was unsupervised to do it."

[citation needed] assumes facts not in evidence
posted by nicebookrack at 4:00 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Knowin something is wrong and knowing someone will try to stop you if they catch you are not the same. Cite: teenage sex and drinking. Entirely possible to have no moral qualms at all and still being careful not to get caught.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 4:09 PM on March 20, 2012


I just don't understand how a person can kill five children, and still be alive. Insane or not insane, I think the penalty for such a terrible crime should be death, plain and simple. It's unfortunate that the "justice" system here in the U.S. seems to have so many flaws in it, to the point where criminals can commit a crime, CONFESS that they committed the crime, yet wind up with only a life sentence, or even worse, wind up in a mental hospital. I have no sympathy for her; the bottom line for me is she got away with multiple murders, when she should should have been executed a long time ago.
posted by KillaSeal at 4:27 PM on March 20, 2012


Mental illness is in fact a real thing.
posted by shakespeherian at 4:30 PM on March 20, 2012 [9 favorites]


Knowin something is wrong and knowing someone will try to stop you if they catch you are not the same.

Knowing that something is wrong just is knowing that someone (the state) will try to stop you if they catch you. That's the (simplified) law in Canada, for example.

The problem with Yates is that she reveals our society's incoherent view of responsibility and mental illness. Right now, the basic (not exactly legal, but close enough) framework is as follows. If you have a mental illness, you're not responsible for your actions. You have a mental illness if psychiatrists say you do. Psychiatrists say you have a mental illness if your behaviour is socially problematic. The case is strengthened if there's visible activity in the brain, in which case we'll say you have a "chemical imbalance," though that's not necessary.

It takes time, obviously, for behaviour to be recognized as socially problematic, and for us to find the mechanisms that cause people to become "irrational." But in principle any behaviour can be defined as a symptom of a mental illness, mostly because under any plausible theory of mind, any behaviour will ultimately have physical manifestations. For that reason, we can see that the prevalence of mental illness is actually just a way of measuring social problems in a society. But, of course, so is moral responsibility. These two ways of viewing the world--the deterministic, health/illness way; and the free will, moral/responsibility way--are in tension with each other, philosophically. They both "explain" behaviour, but they threaten each other, and it's not at all clear that both can be maintained coherently.

It is not surprising, I think, that in a capitalist society we increasingly leave social problems to experts (psychiatrists), that we do not think about their root causes, that we do not deal with them as a community.
posted by smorange at 4:32 PM on March 20, 2012


Mental illness is in fact a real thing.

Yes, it is as real as moral responsibility. They are two ways of looking at the same thing.
posted by smorange at 4:33 PM on March 20, 2012


Insane or not insane, I think the penalty for such a terrible crime should be death, plain and simple.

People who argue for the death penalty often say it is important to have a strong deterrent to capital crimes. Obviously, insane people are not going to behave rationally and therefore such a deterrent is not going to have the effect people hope it would. Essentially, it's not logical to kill them for being crazy.

Though it sounds like you're talking about vengeance, and that's not how the criminal justice system in the US is supposed to work.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:49 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


You have a mental illness if psychiatrists say you do. Psychiatrists say you have a mental illness if your behaviour is socially problematic. The case is strengthened if there's visible activity in the brain, in which case we'll say you have a "chemical imbalance," though that's not necessary.

What are you even talking about
posted by shakespeherian at 4:54 PM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


In Daniel Robinson's Teaching Company course on Psychology he has a 40 minute lecture devoted exclusively to the Insanity Defense. The thing that surprised me is that some form of Insanity Defense has existed in almost all formal documented legal systems in history. I am not qualified to evaluate the accuracy of the claim, but that he even would claim it surprised the hell out of me. He says the Greeks called it "wolf's rage" and it's even called that in the Illiad where some guy (Ajax? I forget who but it was a fairly major character) took a sword swing at a goddess.
posted by bukvich at 4:55 PM on March 20, 2012


If you have a mental illness, you're not responsible for your actions.

Nothing personal, but you seem pretty unfamiliar with how the insanity defense works.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:59 PM on March 20, 2012


From the article:

"Andrea Yates is reportedly doing better. Last June, ten years after the killings, her lawyer George Parnham, argued publicly that it might be time for her to be released. "When this first happened," he told ABC News, "she was severely mentally ill and would experience extreme sickness at around this time each year." Now, with therapy and treatment (and meds like Effexor), one of Yates' friends told the network "She's come full circle and she's really well.""

That's proof of sanity? I think any sane mother would be absolutely horrified every time the anniversary of her murdering her five children rolls around.

For all of you who claim to have knowledge of what is in her heart or in her mind, I congratulate you on your excellent mind reading abilities. Perhaps you can share your secrets with us.

All I can see are the facts. Five dead children. Murdered by their mother in one hour. Is she a danger to others? For all of you who say no, I invite you to let her watch your kids.

Personally, I wouldn't let this woman within 1000 yards of another child again for the rest of her life. I think she's earned that after murdering her five children.
posted by cjets at 5:02 PM on March 20, 2012


I am still incensed that her husband was not held at least partially responsible in some way. Morally I think he bears a big part of the responsibility. He continued to let an extremely ill woman watch those children. He left them with her ALONE. He continued to impregnate her against professional medical advice. Etcetera etcetera.

He bears part of this.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:10 PM on March 20, 2012 [13 favorites]


Nothing personal, but you seem pretty unfamiliar with how the insanity defense works.

I understand how it works. That's why I added the disclaimer about the legal framework. The legal framework is more nuanced, but the fundamental tension is still there. There was a Canadian case in which Supreme Court of Canada said this outright (or maybe it was the ONCA, but I think it was Dickson).
posted by smorange at 5:17 PM on March 20, 2012


I know a lot of psychotics

Really? Really you do?

Good lord what this thread has come to (not calling you out especially, anotherpanacea, you're by no means the most egregious example). Totally depressing. It's like a perverse supper club; armchair psychologists, armchair lawyers, armchair psychiatrists, armchair judges, armchair everything.
posted by smoke at 5:46 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Actually, smorange, in the US, this: "If you have a mental illness, you're not responsible for your actions. You have a mental illness if psychiatrists say you do. Psychiatrists say you have a mental illness if your behaviour is socially problematic." is not even an accurate "back of the envelope" explanation of how a not guilty by reason of insanity plea or verdict would go. And Yates was tried in the US, not Canada.

In a state still following the M'Naughten Rule, like California, a defendant must prove that mental defect or disease prevented her from knowing the nature and quality of her act, or if knowing the nature and quality of her act, suffering from a mental disease or defect that prevented her from knowing it was wrong. In a state, like Texas, still following the M'Naughten Rule, coupled with the irresistible impulse, in addition to the inability to comprehend her actions and/or their wrongness, she would have to be rendered incapable by mental illness from resisting the impulse to commit them: the "irresistible impulse test" which was developed from criticism of the impossibility of meeting the M'Naughten Rule standard. In a state, like Illinois, that follows a modified version of the Model Penal Code Rule, you have sort of a modern version of those rules and tests--as well as the discarded "Durham Rule", which required a showing of prior mental illness exhibited through prior behavior. The MPC Rule asks does the defendant have a "substantial incapacity to appreciate the criminality of her conduct or to conform her conduct to the law". Some states incorporate the Durham Rule by requiring prior diagnosis. The MPC Rule is considered an easier standard to meet than either M'Naughten or Irresistible Impulse, but by no means an easy standard to meet.

In every case, because this is a defense, the burden is upon the defendant to prove the incapacity or inability to conform to the law. The defendant is not arguing that she is not responsible for her own actions; she's arguing that she lacks the mental capacity to conform her chosen actions to the law. One can accept responsibility for the act (as Yates arguably did, in that she stated that she had killed her children in her 911 call) and remain demonstrably incapable of appreciating the criminality of that act or remain demonstrably incapable of restraining ones self from committing them.

It is, of course, differentiated from sociopathology, which (although a mental illness) is not an inability to conform to the law, but a complete lack of interest in conforming to the law. Sociopaths know they are committing crimes; they don't care that it's a crime.
posted by crush-onastick at 5:53 PM on March 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


I swear--I previewed that incomprehensible block several times. Sorry.
posted by crush-onastick at 5:54 PM on March 20, 2012


The saddest part, I thought, was that any time the medication and therapy began to work and she would realise what she had done to her children and it would send her insane again. She is trapped with a punishment worse than any of us can inflict on her, either a massively drugged consciousness where feelings and thoughts are severely blunted or the soul-killing horror of knowing she killed the children she loved.
posted by saucysault at 5:58 PM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


My point was that, taboo or no, it or something equally taboo (familicide) has happened at least 500 times in the US in the 20th century. That's one every two years.

No, my point was that a mother killing her five kids is not something that happens every day, or every year. Parents killing their child is a taboo. Killing five? That's unheard of.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 6:08 PM on March 20, 2012


crush-onastick, I was talking more about the incoherence of public discourse around these issues, like in this thread. I was and am aware that there are differences between Canadian and American law on this. But frankly I think that's just symptomatic of the lack of clarity around these issues. Legally, I think we're headed for problems regardless of the legal system, for the following reason:

It is, of course, differentiated from sociopathology, which (although a mental illness) is not an inability to conform to the law, but a complete lack of interest in conforming to the law.

If someday we unearth good reason to believe that sociopaths, too, can't conform to the law, if their choices are as determined as Yates's in particular situations, what does that do to our beliefs about responsibility?
posted by smorange at 6:12 PM on March 20, 2012


smorange I still want to know what the fuck you're talking about w/r/t this:
You have a mental illness if psychiatrists say you do. Psychiatrists say you have a mental illness if your behaviour is socially problematic. The case is strengthened if there's visible activity in the brain, in which case we'll say you have a "chemical imbalance," though that's not necessary.
posted by shakespeherian at 6:16 PM on March 20, 2012


I'm saying that any behaviour can be described as symptomatic of an illness. There is no rigorous, principled way to differentiate between socially disapproved behaviour arising out of a mental illness and socially disapproved behaviour arising out of a moral failing. That's because they're two possible ways of describing the same thing. For example, you can imagine someone who loses her job because she stops going into work because she hates her job. We can call her lazy. That's the moral way of looking at it. We can also call her sick (depressed). That's the psychological way of looking at it. Whether she's lazy or depressed depends on which lens you view the behaviour through. Which lens you view the behaviour through depends on you, not so much the behaviour.

My mother is schizophrenic. That can be merely a description of her behaviour. But the social function of psychiatry goes beyond that. The diagnosis functions as an explanation, and in many contexts, as an excuse. I'm not saying whether it should be used that way, but it is. The label allows us to understand the behaviour. If you asked me what caused her illness, I could point to a chemical imbalance in her brain, but I could also point to traumatic experiences in her life (giving up a baby for adoption, depression caused by it, and divorce caused by that). Both of those explanations are true, but one absolves her of responsibility, while the other does not. Thinking of her actions now in terms of her mental illness, and not thinking about the social/biological conditions that caused that illness, allows us to make sense of her behaviour. But thinking that her actions today are immoral, wrong, or inappropriate, and that she's a bad or flawed person also allows us to make sense of her behaviour. They are both, in a sense, "true"--depending on our standard for what counts as truth.

Suppose my mother killed someone (she hasn't) because of delusions. Let's say we could trace her illness, the cause of her delusions, back to a choice she made 35 years ago. Is she responsible? Is society? Those are the very difficult questions psychiatry's ascendence in the law allows us to avoid.
posted by smorange at 6:41 PM on March 20, 2012


I just don't understand how a person can kill five children, and still be alive. Insane or not insane, I think the penalty for such a terrible crime should be death, plain and simple... I have no sympathy for her; the bottom line for me is she got away with multiple murders, when she should should have been executed a long time ago.

Too much. There's nothing to be gained by her death. It won't rectify anything, it will just make a subset of people feel good for the wrong reasons.

Obviously, I don't have a tremendous amount of sympathy for Ms. Yates. But it's not the state's job to decide whether she lives or dies. The purpose of government is to protect the lives of those governed by it, even those who are the most repugnant. You have every right to feel angry and even outraged by crimes against the most vulnerable. In fact, you should. But it's important to separate those emotions from the pragmatic realities of what we're doing when we allow people to be executed.

Perhaps some people don't deserve to live. I might be persuaded to adopt that position. However, there's no useful barometer of who those people are and there is no jury that can be trusted to make such a perilous decision. Every execution is a moral quagmire that potentially runs counter to the values of respect for others that it's alleged to promote. It's safer to reject it as an option even if sometimes that's just not viscerally satisfying.

As for this particular case, I think it's obvious that Yates is suffering from mental defect. The issue is whether someone so remarkably disconnected from normal human behavior should ever be allowed back into society. The issue of punishment is in my mind irrelevant.
posted by Mayor Curley at 7:23 PM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


I'm not a psychiatrist or a psychologist, but I've studied this stuff as an undergraduate and the legal side of it in law school, so I understand the legal issues in Canada behind it. What's more, almost all of my life, until I moved out about 10 years ago, I lived with parents who were mentally ill. I still have contact with them, and they remain ill (my dad is undiagnosed, but my mom is not). I have had more firsthand experience with it than many psychiatrists. That doesn't mean I understand the field better than they do, obviously. But I'm perfectly capable of understanding that mental illness isn't something you either "have" or "don't have." It's a continuum. We draw lines and call something an illness based on social needs. There are psychologists and psychiatrists who'll say the same thing. And there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. That doesn't mean that mental illness doesn't exist. It means that, if it exists, it exists in all of us. But if that's the case, if we are not really responsible for our actions in the way that we think we are, then that's problematic for our ideas of moral responsibility.

Andrea Yates knew what she was doing was thought to be wrong by society. That would be enough to convict her in Canada. She almost certainly would not be able to rely on the so-called insanity defence because of differences in the legal regime here. Should she be able to do so? That, I would submit, is a question of values and policy, not fact or law, and the problem is that discourse on these issues is at bottom incoherent. I'm not saying we necessarily ought to resolve that incoherence, but we should be able to recognize it for what it is.

In a Supreme Court of Canada case, R v Tran [2010], a Vietnamese man killed his wife's lover. In the community where he grew up, but not in Canada, his wife's (and her lover's) behaviour was immoral and he was reacting to it. He claimed provocation, which in Canada reduces murder to manslaughter. From his point of view, he probably did feel provoked. The trial judge agreed. The SCC, however, said that Tran's responsible for his actions, and even if he felt provoked it wasn't reasonable for him to have been. We impute and assume he holds Charter values, even if he doesn't.

Because his moral ideas are out of sync with Canadian values, should we think of Tran as mentally ill? If in fact it's true that anyone who grew up where Tran grew up and went through what he went through would have done the same thing, does that excuse his behaviour? The SCC said no, and we can understand and support their reasons for doing so. But it's not obvious that there's a principled reason behind it. If, because of his upbringing, Tran couldn't really have done otherwise (in the moment), it's hard to say that his moral responsibility reaches all the way to murder. Why shouldn't we treat him as mentally ill, like we do with people who go through terrible experiences and develop PTSD? Because his illness isn't in the DSM? Why isn't it in the DSM? These aren't easy questions to answer.
posted by smorange at 7:28 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Worth noting, for those who says that Yates "got away with" killing her children: She didn't get away with anything, and she didn't even try to. This isn't the Susan Smith case, where she lied about an alibi. Yates called the police immediately after doing it, and said what she'd done. This isn't sociopathic, because there's clearly no intent to profit from her actions.

Would you let her watch your kids? Obviously not. But there's lots of things that exclude someone from being my caregiver of choice that are not a reason to lock someone up.

Now that said... Is it possible that she's going to start hanging out in public parks looking for kids who seem like they might be hellbound? That's the question we have to look to her doctors to answer.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 7:42 PM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


That doesn't mean that mental illness doesn't exist. It means that, if it exists, it exists in all of us.

Maybe I'm just operating with severely different definitions from you, but this doesn't follow by any sort of logical understanding of mental illness that I have.

Because his moral ideas are out of sync with Canadian values, should we think of Tran as mentally ill?

And is this based upon your 'we are all mentally ill to some degree' idea? Because, again, in my experience, mental illness is not simply 'having moral ideas out of sync' with your contemporaneous society. Mental illness is when my brother-in-law became convinced that pharmaceutical companies were engaged in a conspiracy to keep people in a subconscious dream state in order to bilk them for phony drug fees, and that the only way for him to escape this dream state was to jump off a five-story parking structure to wake up. There's a very large difference, as I understand it, between things that you do because you had a particular upbringing and things you do because the chemicals in your brain are fucked up which causes you to believe in unreality.

I don't know anything about your parents, obviously, and I wish them well, and you too. But this 'mental illness is a continuum, therefore there's only a difference of degree between the ill and the well' sounds like pseudoscience armchair bullshit.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:50 PM on March 20, 2012 [5 favorites]


I see your point, smorange, but IMHO you're taking it too far.

Because his moral ideas are out of sync with Canadian values, should we think of Tran as mentally ill?

Not according to any definition of mental illness that I'm aware of, especially where the law is concerned. Cultural difference is not mental illness. There are sometimes cultural defenses, but they work differently than insanity defenses.

A more or less rational adult from Culture A is going to be expected to comport himself a certain way in Culture B, whereas someone with a severe mental illness may have less ability to control how she feels and behaves. You are begging the question by assuming that people from another culture are literally as hardwired and nonreflexive as a someone with a severe mental illness.

The SCC said no, and we can understand and support their reasons for doing so. But it's not obvious that there's a principled reason behind it. If, because of his upbringing, Tran couldn't really have done otherwise (in the moment), it's hard to say that his moral responsibility reaches all the way to murder.

You are making a huge, unintentionally offensive assumption in saying that Tran literally could not have done otherwise.

Cultural defenses, insanity defenses, voluntary manslaughter, determinism, and free will are all very complicated concepts, and these issues are never easy. However, even in this edge case, it seems fairly obvious that the SCC felt that adults in Canada, no matter their upbringing, must comport themselves in certain ways, including but not limited to murdering their wives' paramours. If you really are the sort of person who literally cannot stop himself from committing murder when his wife cheats, then you are exactly the sort of person Canada wants behind bars.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:31 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Lying behind this is teleology. There is no teleology in nature. At bottom, behaviour is considered to be healthy or unhealthy for social reasons. Illnesses are social constructions in that their existence depends on labelling behaviour healthy or unhealthy, which are teleological ideas.

Homosexuality was a mental health issue decades ago; now it's not. That has nothing to do with the "truth" of the matter. It's not that we were blinded to the truth by homophobia, although some people explain the history in those terms. In fact, however, there is no value-independent truth to the question of whether homosexuality is a mental health issue. It has everything to do with whether we consider homosexuality to be problematic. When we say it's not an illness, we are saying that we no longer consider it to be worthy of the label.

When we label a set of behaviours symptomatic of an illness, we make a value-laden distinction. It's not devoid of facts. Often we'll be able to point to activity in the brain that corresponds to it, although sometimes we won't be able to. But the distinction itself depends on values. The problem is, activity in the brain doesn't actually explain anything. Our brains change all the time. That's how we, as natural human machines, work. (That assertion depends on mind-body dualism being false, but I'm comfortable with that assumption).

For this reason, I'm fairly confident that gay people have different neuro-chemical activity going on in their brains, or different brain structures, or some other physical cause of their behaviour/preferences. If this is so, should we then conclude that they have a "chemical imbalance" or "brain abnormality" that's evidence of mental illness? I would say no: being gay isn't an illness because it's not a problem. That assessment is uncontroversial on MeFi; however, it's not uncontroversial everyone, and it depends on values. "Problem" is a teleological idea.

This is true of all mental illnesses. It's just that cases like Andrea Yates are uncontroversial in the other direction. Everyone agrees that she has a mental illness because her behaviour is so socially problematic, and it's not explicable to us except in psychological terms. That, though, is a values judgment, and insofar as her illness isn't genetically caused (or in the womb), something in the world caused it. Whether that "something" is something we would or should hold her responsible for depends on what it is. And our understanding of that is in its infancy, but it won't be forever.
posted by smorange at 9:12 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


What I remember is that Andrea Yates had gone through much of the Holmes/Rahe list (and living through disasters should be added to this as well. I didn't know about the TS until immlass pointed it out),that when her husband showed up at the house a cop told him not to go in the house but asked him if he'd like a glass of water. His reply was he didn't think one could find a clean glass--which means he wasn't lifting a finger with housework.

I don't think! Andrea Yates should be left unsupervised with children, but I also think that Russell Yates got what he deserved and should have been sterilized before he bred more
posted by brujita at 9:49 PM on March 20, 2012


I'm not a psychiatrist or a psychologist, but I've studied this stuff as an undergraduate and the legal side of it in law school ... Because his moral ideas are out of sync with Canadian values, should we think of Tran as mentally ill?

No, because his wrong ideas do not arise from a disease of the mind, which is the first leg of the M'Naghten Rules. As for Mrs Yates, who certainly had (what would then have been called) a disease of the mind, the questions would be whether she knew what she was doing (apparently she did) or that what she was doing was wrong. From what I understand the jury decided that she didn't know it was wrong at the time she did it. As you will recall from law school, this is a finding of fact and not something that could be reversed on appeal unless you argue that they were wrongly instructed - and I don't believe anyone has argued that.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:52 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Joe, you're missing my point. "Disease of the mind" is not supposed to be a medical idea; instead, it's supposed to be an (arbitrary) idea relying on the (false, arbitrary) distinction between internal/external cause. But in practice (partly because the distinction is false) the determination is influenced entirely by medicine (which, I have argued, is political) and "policy considerations."
posted by smorange at 10:59 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


As you will recall from law school, this is a finding of fact and not something that could be reversed on appeal unless you argue that they were wrongly instructed - and I don't believe anyone has argued that.

There were two trials, and the first was overturned on appeal because of errors in the psychiatrist's testimony.

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

Could you spell this out without the snark? Are you saying that schizophrenia is importantly different from postpartum psychosis? Your links don't make the case.

Really? Really you do?

Ummm. Yes, I really do? More to the point, there are a number of psychiatrists and philosophers who are skeptical of the mixing of incomplete psychiatric "authority" with the criminal justice system: Thomas Szasz, Michel Foucault, Ian Hacking, etc.

If you don't feel like digging those books up, here's an easier article:
[C]ourts accept . . . testimonial dishonesty, . . . specifically where witnesses, especially expert witnesses, show a "high propensity to purposely distort their testimony in order to achieve desired ends."  . . . 

Experts frequently . . . and openly subvert statutory and case law criteria that impose rigorous behavioral standards as predicates for commitment   . . .

This combination  . . . helps define a system in which  (1) dishonest testimony is often regularly (and unthinkingly) accepted; (2) statutory and case law standards are frequently subverted; and (3) insurmountable barriers are raised to insure that the allegedly "therapeutically correct" social end is met . . ..  In short, the mental disability law system often deprives individuals of liberty disingenuously and upon bases that have no relationship to case law or to statutes.

The ADA and Persons with Mental Disabilities:  Can Sanist Attitudes Be Undone? by Michael L. Perlin, Journal of Law and Health, 1993/1994, 8 JLHEALTH 15, 33-34.
That said, I think that neuroscience (as opposed to psychiatry) may well undermine some of the retributivist accounts of punishment that currently do so much work in our society, well beyond the Yates case. Here's a good recent paper on the topic.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:27 AM on March 21, 2012


For this reason, I'm fairly confident that gay people have different neuro-chemical activity going on in their brains, or different brain structures, or some other physical cause of their behaviour/preferences. If this is so, should we then conclude that they have a "chemical imbalance" or "brain abnormality" that's evidence of mental illness? I would say no: being gay isn't an illness because it's not a problem. That assessment is uncontroversial on MeFi; however, it's not uncontroversial everyone, and it depends on values. "Problem" is a teleological idea.

This sounds to a great degree like 'Some people are short, some people are tall. Some people have different colored eyes. Therefore blindness is only a teleological problem, and a value judgement.'
posted by shakespeherian at 4:34 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Are you saying that schizophrenia is importantly different from postpartum psychosis?

One does involve having a baby, so there's that.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:35 AM on March 21, 2012


What do you mean, Brandon? That because there is one event we can point to as a "cause", it is different? That there should be more accountability from the person with post partum psychosis? I'm sorry, I don't understand what distunction you are making, could you elaborate?
posted by saucysault at 4:52 AM on March 21, 2012


Are you saying that schizophrenia and postpartum psychosis have little distinction between them?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:00 AM on March 21, 2012


Are you saying that schizophrenia and postpartum psychosis have little distinction between them?

Well, what I've read is that postpartum psychosis probably shares etiology with schizophrenia, just as postpartum depression likely shares an etiology with major depression disorder. In fact, women with a history of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder are at heightened risk of both postpartum psychosis and postpartum depression, suggesting that there's more of a continuum here than a strict delineation. Do you have different information?
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:21 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Therefore blindness is only a teleological problem, and a value judgement.'

Well, yes. Blindness isn't a "problem" unless we think it is. It's only a problem because of particular needs/purposes we have. If our society didn't rely on vision, it would just be a difference. That doesn't mean it's not a "real problem." It's as real as any other problem is, and so is homosexuality. But the concept of a "problem" itself relies on the concept of "bad" or "lacking." Those are teleological ideas. I know this isn't a nice thought, but it's true--unless you reject the scientific worldview and embrace teleology.

The possible problem (teleological!) with converting moral problems into mental health problems is: the latter's discourse functions to rob humans of autonomy/free will. This is important because feeling that your actions were determined undermines feelings of guilt, and guilt has been a means of social control for a long, long time. At our current state of knowledge, with a non-dualist philosophy of mind, "she did it because she's mentally ill" isn't an explanation; it's just a description.
posted by smorange at 8:27 AM on March 21, 2012


Could you spell this out without the snark? Are you saying that schizophrenia is importantly different from postpartum psychosis?

No. What I am saying is that you apparently do not see a distinction between a mentally ill person--of whom there are many, functioning successfully in society to various degrees on a daily basis--and a mentally ill person who is psychotic, who stops being able to function successfully because they are in the midst of a psychotic break from reality that is a severe and immediate medical/psychological emergency.

There are different societal perceptions of sane/not sane, yes. But every society has a conception of someone who has (in the technical terms) "temporarily lost their freaking mind." Yates did not, say, commit an "honor killing" accepted and encouraged by her own culture. She killed her kids in a psychotic episode, something that would and DID horrify her in her normal mental state.

tl;dr psychosis analogy: Lots of people have heart problems. To treat those problems, many people take medications, do particular exercises, refrain from certain activities, and/or undergo close, regular medical supervision. But not all of them are going to have full-blown heart attacks, which their treatment is meant to PREVENT. A person with severe ongoing congestive heart failure can be seriously ill and still be less of an immediate medical emergency as a person in full cardiac arrest. Yates's bipolar disorder + postpartum depression = congestive heart failure in this scenario (sorta); puerperal psychosis = heart attack.
posted by nicebookrack at 8:30 AM on March 21, 2012


What I am saying is that you apparently do not see a distinction between a mentally ill person--of whom there are many, functioning successfully in society to various degrees on a daily basis--and a mentally ill person who is psychotic, who stops being able to function successfully because they are in the midst of a psychotic break from reality that is a severe and immediate medical/psychological emergency.

I see. I thought you were actually talking about psychiatric medicine, not something you saw in a movie. There's no such thing as a "psychotic break" in the DSM-IV. This is just folk psychology and armchair diagnosis: I had hoped you had some specific distinction in mind.

Now, maybe we will someday learn that postpartum psychosis is something strange and different from severe schizophrenia, but we don't have that medical knowledge yet. In the interim, this isn't the kind of case we would normally make an exception for: she knew she was ending lives, she knew that this was wrong, and she did it anyway.

Compare this to the insanity defense used by John du Pont, who in his paranoid schizophrenia thought he was defending himself against David Schultz: there, the delusions indicated a different set of intentions than the facts a reasonable person would infer, i.e. self-defense rather than murder. Given the delusional set of beliefs he was working with, it might make sense to say that du Pont was innocent of murder. Since the internal justifications matter for mens rea, we allow the jury to consider them. But what set of beliefs was Yates working with? Given those beliefs, is there any internal justification for what she did?

Here's what we do know: Yates believed at the time that she was ending the lives of her children, and she knew it was illegal. That's what she said, I'm not reading her mind or anything silly like that. She also said she believed she was doing what was best for them. Thinking someone is better off dead does not appear to be a justification that you or I would accept as a reason to kill, does it? You don't go around taking other people's lives just because of your judgments about the quality of those lives. What's more, on this description Yates did not have a psychotic break, even according to the folk definition: she had a disagreement about the existence and merits of the afterlife, with full knowledge of ordinary standards of morality.

We see something incomprehensible and sad, and we refuse to believe that a human being could choose to do that. But Yates is human, and she did choose.

Indeed, a jury decided that she was guilty at the time, but that jury was overturned and a retrial was ordered because of a stupid mistake by a psychiatrist... not about anything psychiatric, but about the plot of a television show for which he had consulted. In that sense, I guess you and he have something in common: the inability to distinguish fact from fiction. In this, you and he are different from the perpetrator, Yates, who did not appear to be mistaken about the facts of the matter, did not have a "break with reality," but rather disagreed as to their significance.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:24 AM on March 21, 2012


Those are teleological ideas. I know this isn't a nice thought, but it's true--unless you reject the scientific worldview and embrace teleology.

Time to shut down the entire study of ethics! You've got it all figured it out! Of course, we'll need to see your homework...

These are not simple questions, and they don't have simple answers. Teleology in ethics is a different beast than teleology in science. You are right that, in ethics, we do come up against edge cases, gray areas, paradoxes, and the unknown. It does not mean that the entire machine shuts down, no more than the unexplained or misunderstood in science shuts down that particular machine.

The distinction between someone like Ms. Yates and someone like Mr. Tran may be socially determined, but it is not arbitrary. The distinction is only arbitrary if we redefine "arbitrary" to mean something than what it already means.

The possible problem (teleological!) with converting moral problems into mental health problems is: the latter's discourse functions to rob humans of autonomy/free will. This is important because feeling that your actions were determined undermines feelings of guilt, and guilt has been a means of social control for a long, long time. At our current state of knowledge, with a non-dualist philosophy of mind, "she did it because she's mentally ill" isn't an explanation; it's just a description.

You were all too happy to similarly rob Mr. Tran (and his Vietnamese fellow-travelers) of his free will, so I'm not sure what alternative you're presenting to the present model. From what I can gather, it sounds like you are enthusiastically deterministic, in a way that readily jumps to conclusions about others' behavior. It's odd. Perhaps you could clarify and lay some things out.

Regardless, the argument is not merely that Ms. Yates did what she did "because" she was mentally ill. The argument is that she was literally incapable of separating right from wrong in her mind, which is a different question.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:26 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


If we want to talk about edge cases which problematize the sane/insane divide in murder cases, I'm going to repeat myself and throw out John List. He killed his family because he thought he had ruined their lives, and that in killing them, he would send them to Heaven, where they would be happier. Of course he didn't have postpartum depression, but he clearly had mental problems.

From a legal point of view, it seems fairly clear why they didn't mount an insanity defense for List. List was cool and stealthy. He was obviously aware that he was committing a legal wrong, even though he thought he was morally correct.

But why does Yates inspire our sympathy, while List gets turned into The Stepfather, even though their motives were largely the same? Yates' desperation? Yates' aggressively unhelpful husband? List's lies? List's coolness? Archetypes of female victims and male aggressors?

Hell, even thinking about Yates' husband: he probably thought he was treating his wife just fine. He probably really did think that depressed people just needed a "kick in the pants," as he had said. He probably thought that the teachings of their church would lead them to a happier life, and that it was the psychologist who was giving bad advice. Poisonous mistakes, stupid mistakes, but probably good faith mistakes. Is it because, as a rational adult without psychosis, that we place certain expectations on him, regardless of his upbringing or conscious intent?
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:38 AM on March 21, 2012


You were all too happy to similarly rob Mr. Tran (and his Vietnamese fellow-travelers) of his free will...

No. I was using the case to illustrate the arbitrariness involved. I'm saying that whatever we choose to do, we should be honest about it, that's all.
posted by smorange at 10:03 AM on March 21, 2012


You are right that, in ethics, we do come up against edge cases, gray areas, paradoxes, and the unknown. It does not mean that the entire machine shuts down, no more than the unexplained or misunderstood in science shuts down that particular machine.

This misunderstands what ethics is. Ethics is not even aspirationally a search for value-independent truth. It certainly used to be when we were all religious. But now God is dead and because of that, there's no reason to believe in moral truth independent of us, not anymore. Ethics, properly understood, is a humanistic discipline concerned with how we ought to live. Atheists have no reason to believe that oughts or values exist anywhere except in our brains. We construct them.

Science, real science, is different. Science attempts to discover truths about the world that are true independent of our beliefs: causal, necessary, mechanistic relations. I'm not saying that ethics "shuts down." I'm saying that calling something a medical problem (rather than a moral problem) removes that thing from ethics and puts it into medicine. It redefines the problem, but it does nothing to solve it. That's because the concept of a "problem" is irreducibly normative (ethical) regardless of whether it's a moral or medical problem. The thing is: you choose how you define a problem, and it's an important choice because how you define a problem determines the answer. There are practical implications to calling someone "insane" or "evil," even though those are just two ways of describing the same thing. I'm asking for more honesty about that choice.

I have said very little about what I think we ought to do. All I am saying is that Andrea Yates forces us to make a choice. I'm saying that it is a choice--as much as anything is a choice--but we prefer to think it's not because not choosing is psychologically simpler, easier. It allows us to ignore the fundamental incoherence of our worldviews. The debate over whether Andrea Yates was evil or mentally ill is our society's way of resolving cognitive dissonance by distracting us from the truth: she is both.
posted by smorange at 11:32 AM on March 21, 2012


No. I was using the case to illustrate the arbitrariness involved. I'm saying that whatever we choose to do, we should be honest about it, that's all.

You were the one who said that Tran could not have helped himself, as a result of his upbringing:

If, because of his upbringing, Tran couldn't really have done otherwise (in the moment), it's hard to say that his moral responsibility reaches all the way to murder. Why shouldn't we treat him as mentally ill, like we do with people who go through terrible experiences and develop PTSD? Because his illness isn't in the DSM? Why isn't it in the DSM? These aren't easy questions to answer.

The SCC certainly did not think that Tran couldn't help himself. They concluded the exact opposite. You were the one who raised the idea that he could not have helped himself. Whether that's a result of sloppiness, your own belief, or an attempt to create a straw man, that's your business, but it came from you regardless.

This is setting aside the sloppiness of suggesting that people who develop PTSD suddenly have a carte blanche to commit homicide without criminal penalty, which is not the case in Canada, the US, or anywhere else.

Ethics is not even aspirationally a search for value-independent truth. It certainly used to be when we were all religious. But now God is dead and because of that, there's no reason to believe in moral truth independent of us, not anymore. Ethics, properly understood, is a humanistic discipline concerned with how we ought to live. Atheists have no reason to believe that oughts or values exist anywhere except in our brains. We construct them.

This is a very strange read of the field, containing as well a misreading of what I was saying. I never said that ethics is a drill that keeps on digging until it finds a rich vein of objective truth, although you seem to wish it worked that way.

You obviously have your own opinions on these issues, but it's unconvincing to pretend that your own opinions have settled these issues. You need to study these issues more closely and more carefully.

I'm saying that calling something a medical problem (rather than a moral problem) removes that thing from ethics and puts it into medicine. It redefines the problem, but it does nothing to solve it.

This is a major oversimplification of moral problems, ethics, medicine, and mental illness. As we learn more about how humans work, we will have to continually reappraise how we deal with people, but it does not mean that things are so arbitrary as you apparently think they are, unless we redefine "arbitrary" to mean something other than what it actually means.

The debate over whether Andrea Yates was evil or mentally ill is our society's way of resolving cognitive dissonance by distracting us from the truth: she is both.

Courts do not decide issues of "evil." Guilt and innocence are not evil and goodness.

Incidentally, you are the first person to use the term "evil" in this thread. Most of even the more basic critiques of Yates aren't speaking to any inherent "evil" she possesses, but rather in terms of danger that she presents to other people.

Regardless, it's not all that difficult, even under the current rubric, to recognize someone as being both insane and evil, whatever we decide those terms mean. The question comes down to the blurry line between sending some people to prison and others to a mental care facility.

There will never be a perfect system that can provide a wholly proven logical argument as to why every single defendant goes in either Category A or Category B. That does not mean that it is "arbitrary."
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:40 PM on March 21, 2012


The SCC certainly did not think that Tran couldn't help himself. They concluded the exact opposite. You were the one who raised the idea that he could not have helped himself.

I said if it's the case. I did not say it was. This disagreement is precisely why the case went to the SCC. I never said they made the wrong choice. I'm not sure how many times I have to say this.

You obviously have your own opinions on these issues, but it's unconvincing to pretend that your own opinions have settled these issues. You need to study these issues more closely and more carefully.

You do not know nearly as much as you think you know. Mostly I am saying what anotherpanacea is saying, but in different words.

Guilt and innocence are not evil and goodness.

This is naive. Guilt and innocence depend on moral responsibility, which is about good and evil. It's dressed up a bit, but that's what it's about. This is straight out of Nietzsche.

Most of even the more basic critiques of Yates aren't speaking to any inherent "evil" she possesses, but rather in terms of danger that she presents to other people.

That is flatly untrue, as this thread attests. Mayor Curly's comment here is an example that implicitly points to the incoherence I've outlined. And certainly those who think the criminal justice system ought to be about retribution would disagree. That's not a large constituency on MeFi, but that's because MeFi skews left wing.

So let's use an example that would appeal to people here: are rapists evil? Is Dick Cheney? Why or why not? Are they still evil even if we discover that they have mental illnesses? Maybe you don't like the term "evil." Fine. Are they "bad people?" Are they "criminally responsible" for their actions? When we find deviant activity in their brains--and we will, because that's how human beings work in a non-dualist, atheist, philosophy of mind--should they be found not criminally responsible by reason of mental disorder? Should the criminal justice system be about punishment at all? If it's not, it fails to treat people as agents. Is that something we should be concerned about?

These are hard questions, and they aren't solvable by science, medicine, or any other value-independent facts about the world.
posted by smorange at 1:11 PM on March 21, 2012


This disagreement is precisely why the case went to the SCC. I never said they made the wrong choice. I'm not sure how many times I have to say this.

So a straw man, then. Voluntary manslaughter is a concept different from an insanity defense (or a cultural defense), in both Canadian and American law. You are begging the question by pretending they're all the same thing.

You do not know nearly as much as you think you know.

Good, we're all on the same page.

This is naive. Guilt and innocence depend on moral responsibility, which is about good and evil. It's dressed up a bit, but that's what it's about. This is straight out of Nietzsche.

This is an inapt comparison, using idiosyncratic metonymy and terms applied in inappropriately different contexts.

Just because it's your opinion, it does not mean that it's settled. If you are as educated as you strive to be, then you know this to be true.

That is flatly untrue, as this thread attests. Mayor Curly's comment here is an example

Mayor Curly ain't "most" posters. Indeed, he received flack from other posters for his posts. Such is life.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:21 PM on March 21, 2012


Also, voluntary manslaughter is not based on the idea that some people "can't help themselves." In Canada, as it basically is in America, it's about the heat of passion arising from a sudden provocation. While provocation may definitionally deprive an ordinary person of self-control, this does not mean that the accused was literally incapable of behaving otherwise. This deprivation need not be total, turning someone into a 28 Days Later monster, or a madly-spinning many-bladed gyroscope; if it were, it probably couldn't be a culpable homicide.

There is the expectation in Canada, as well as in America, that even something as shocking as catching your loved one in act of cheating does not excuse homicide - it could only potentially mitigate your charge and sentencing. We may agree or disagree why that line is drawn precisely there, but it is not "arbitrary," at least no more so than there is an arbitrary difference between 1kg and 1.01kg.

Incidentally, there's interesting literature out there about voluntary homicide being a "male defense."
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:38 PM on March 21, 2012


Mischaracterizations aside, it sounds like you disagree with the following proposition:

The criminal justice system depends on the idea of moral responsibility, which itself is a moral idea (what I mean by "good and evil").

I think that's obviously true. It also sounds like you disagree with this proposition:

The concepts of "healthy" and "ill" are teleological, and therefore cannot be necessarily true or false. They are at bottom normative concepts, whose normativity is concealed by medicine's scientific-seeming garb.

"Healthy" and "ill" are just ways of dealing with the same old problems humans have always dealt with, but by exorcising free will and responsibility. The problem is, this movement from good/evil to healthy/sick is a non sequitur that the science alone can't support. We should be asking which paradigm is better, not which is true. In this thread, people debated the latter. That means that here, in this thread, the healthy/sick paradigm has already won. My question is: is that a good thing for humanity, or not? How would you like to be treated, if you broke the law? As "sick" or "guilty?"
posted by smorange at 2:12 PM on March 21, 2012


Jesus Christ.
posted by shakespeherian at 2:24 PM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


>Most of even the more basic critiques of Yates aren't speaking to any inherent "evil" she possesses, but rather in terms of danger that she presents to other people.

That is flatly untrue, as this thread attests. Mayor Curly's comment here is an example that implicitly points to the incoherence I've outlined.


My position is more nuanced than the way you're reading it, smorange. I don't believe in Good and Evil outside of "evil" being acting in total self-interest without deference to the impact that your actions will have on other people. But I also have a more animalistic interpretation of human behavior than most people here.

I agree that she's not criminally guilty of those murders, but there is no question that she committed them. Don't take my support of her continued confinement to be a punitive measure-- I want her confined because I don't think it's fair for other people to have to confront what she did merely because they encountered her at the grocery store. Her killings were so abominal, such a viscerally terrifying example of what people are capable of, that the negative impact on people outside mental health professions encountering her outweigh any good for her that might come with her re-admission to society. I also don't feel that anyone who has proved themselves capable of such actions can ever be trusted, even if the opportunities for her establish motus are unlikely to present themselves again.
posted by Mayor Curley at 4:09 AM on March 22, 2012


Mayor Curley wrote: I agree that she's not criminally guilty of those murders, but there is no question that she committed them.

"Murder" is a legal term which carries an implicit judgment: that a person was killed unlawfully. There's no such thing as a murder that is not criminal.

I want her confined because I don't think it's fair for other people to have to confront what she did merely because they encountered her at the grocery store.

I know what you're saying, but we can't go locking people up just because they make us feel unsettled.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:19 AM on March 22, 2012


Serious mental illness here...why would prison be appropriate? I hope she gets better.
posted by agregoli at 6:11 AM on March 22, 2012


"Murder" is a legal term which carries an implicit judgment: that a person was killed unlawfully. There's no such thing as a murder that is not criminal.

"Murder" is also a colloquial term: a person was killed deliberately and without justification.
posted by Mayor Curley at 9:30 AM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


What a brutally depressing thread. When it comes to mental illness, our society is stuck in the dark ages. From people who don't seem to think it exists at all to people who clearly don't understand what it is... and then the usual but still exhausting chorus of those who want to see someone suffer for confused or inadequate reasons. I am so sad about this thread.
posted by prefpara at 5:06 PM on March 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


One problem is that many people think that empathy, or even forgiveness, is the criteria for setting sentences. They should not be connected. Yates deserves sympathy, and possibly forgiveness, but we all do. She still killed a bunch of kids.

As I stated, I've never understood the insanity defense. The argument is that she was insane, so in her mental state her actions made sense, and she was not in control of her mental state. That's fine, but that's no different than a crack addict who kills a store owner. Some people have blinding rage and kill people. As I said before, I think anyone who kills someone is mentally ill. For pretty much everyone who commits murder you could say that it made sense in their mental state, and they were not in control of it. Even people who do it for the insurance money. That's freakin crazy to me. They still have to go to jail.

I don't care anything about vengeance. People have to be locked up just to keep them out of society, and to set a standard for society. I'm sure most murderers regret what they've done, and would never murder again. But in life you have to pay the price for your actions.
posted by bongo_x at 8:42 PM on March 22, 2012


Bongo_x, our legal system differentiates between circumstances that act as a defense, and circumstances that act as mitigation. If you take something (say, a jacket) belonging to someone else because you reasonably believe it to be yours then you have a defense: you didn't steal it, because you had no intent. Mitigating circumstances are different: they affect the degree of culpability, not the fact of guilt. If you're locked out of your house on a snowy night and you take someone's jacket knowingly you are still guilty of theft, but you would probably receive a lighter punishment because you acted out of desperation.

You gave blinding rage as a counter-example to the uniqueness of insanity. As it happens, some jurisdictions do treat blinding rage as a defense to murder - in my jurisdiction it used to be change a charge of murder into the lesser one of manslaughter, although the law has since changed. In jurisdictions where rage is not a defense it is generally treated as a mitigating circumstance because it is felt that someone acting out of passion is less culpable than someone who commits a murder after contemplating the act. It's worth pointing out that if the killing really is justified - say if it's in genuine self defense - then this is a defense both to murder and manslaughter.

The reason why insanity is a defense, not just mitigation, is that it cuts to the heart of what we understand crime to be. Most crimes require that the malefactor understands that the action is wrong. The law says that if someone does not understand that they are killing someone then the act is not murder. A killing committed by someone with this sort of insanity is like, say, a nurse administering a poisonous dose in all innocence when the patient's medicine has been wrongly compounded. There is an act, but no intent, therefore there has been no murder.

It's harder to justify the second sort of insanity plea. This is when the killer knows what they are doing but does not realise that it is wrong. The law distinguishes this from things like blinding rage (or drunkenness or whatever) on the basis that it is caused by an organic defect and not strong emotions or some self-administered intoxicant. You might well ask why this is a reasonable distinction and you wouldn't be the first. My best answer is that one of the reasons for the law is to discourage murderers, and the law thinks that even if someone in the grips of rage is genuinely not responsible for their actions, they are at least responsible for allowing themselves to get into that state. More cynically, the law suspects that murderers will abuse any defense they can find; it doesn't trust witnesses to tell it whether a transient mental state really existed or not; but organic defects are substantial enough to be the basis of a defense.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:52 PM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


-Joe in Australia-

Your points are well taken, it's a complicated issue. I still feel that it has too much to do with people trying to judge what's in other people's hearts (there should be quotation marks in there somewhere). I don't think as a society we should care what people are like "on the inside" (there they are) but judge them by their actions. I don't care if you're a wannabe child molester to the core, as long as you don't molest any children. And I get tired of hearing that someone is a good person, oh, except for the murdering.
posted by bongo_x at 11:35 PM on March 22, 2012


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