Independence day?

This is a story about two women in Texas who murdered their children.
Both women are the same age. Both were deeply religious, stay-at-home moms when they killed their children. Both women confessed.
One mother was found insane, and hospitalized in a mental institution to receive treatment. The other was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.

Actually, there was one way the women were different.
Deanna Laney heard God tell her to kill her children. Andrea Yates heard Satan tell her to kill her children. Guess which one got the life sentence.

Now, if you ask me, if you are hearing from any deities, demigods, or supernatural powers at all, you are a total nut job. Meshugge. I don’t care if it’s Zeus, Xenu, or Uranus talking to you. You need to be signed up for your Haldol, with maybe a lithium chaser, ASAP.

It’s not just me that would say those women were crazier than a shithouse rat, either. DSM-IV, the main diagnostic manual for psychiatrists, agrees. So, why weren’t both women sent to a mental hospital? In fact, Andrea Yates actually had a history of psychotic behavior. Her doctor urged her to not have additional children, but her church had other plans for her uterus. Yet she was found to be sane, and sentenced to life, despite plainly thinking she got voice mail from Lucifer.

What made the difference between the two verdicts? Texas law says, if you can’t tell right from wrong, then you are insane.
So, if you get a suggestion from God about killing people, and kill them thinking you’re doing God’s will–you’re insane. Because God would never ask you to do something bad.

If you get a message from Satan, and he tells you to kill someone, and you know it’s wrong and still do it–you’re sane. This line of thinking makes my head hurt.

It says a great deal about Texas that a jury would sentence a woman to prison, rather than to receive professional mental help, based on which imaginary voice she listened to.

If you want to learn more, read about the expert witness that made the difference between treatment and prison here. One of the more interesting quotes in that extended interview:

“Under Texas law, if a mentally ill person commits a murder in response to command hallucinations from God, they would surely be insane,” he said. “If they did it at the direction of the chief of police, they are arguably insane. If they believed it at the direction of a gang leader, at the direction of Napoleon, at the direction of Satan, they are not insane. Gang leaders, Napoleon and Satan do not have moral authority in Texas.”

So, on this 4th of July, I would like Americans renew our determination to keep church and state separate. Especially in the courts.


Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

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  1. This sort of thing leads me back to Thomas Szász: We don't really want the state in the position to determine what "sane" is.

  2. I think the major problem here is that the jury is making descisions it's not asked to make. They have to decide whether they think this woman is insane. Yet here they are deciding which imaginary voice is "right" and which is "wrong".

    So apparently, just hearing voices doesn't automatically mean you are insane. No, the voice you hear has to be god's, or that of some other official authority figure, for you to be "unable to tell right from wrong".

    I see an ACLU appeal in the future of this case.

    I wonder though if that means Jerry Fallwell and his ilk are insane too, because they are claiming to hear the voice of god, and they've shown on numerous occasions that their grasp of the distinction between "right and wrong" is clearly slipping.

  3. After doing some checking, it appears that Andrea Yates was convicted because of a false testimony by one of the prosecution's expert witnesses. So even a juror from the Deanna Laney trial saw an opportunity to shill god in their statement, the reason another jury found Andrea Yates sane, and guilty, was because the psychiatrist told them she was.

    Of course, the reason the psychiatrist made that distinction is a direct result of his own religious bias. And he went as far as telling outright lies to make sure the jury wouldn't come to the wrong conclusion …

  4. Drat, that was supposed to read:

    "… So even though a juror …"

    Clearly, god didn't have anything to do with the verdict in either case, only with the way the evidence was presented.

  5. actually, Exarch, I interpret it as contributing to the issue–if this trial had happened anywhere else but Texas, I suspect that at least *one* of the 12 jurors would have had some doubts about this. The religious tone of the "expert" witness and their own religiosity made the sentence happen.

    The more you read about these two women, the sadder the whole story gets. They were both very, very religious, and that probably contributed to their psychotic break. (not caused, though, to be clear!)

    The woman that was found to be insane actually stoned her children to death, following what she thought was a biblical command.

    All the details were too complex for a short blog entry, though. And depressing as hell.

  6. The more basic problem is that our judicial system is based on the idea of personal responsibility, and it has a lot of trouble recognizing and dealing with the issue of incompetence in general. This is probably because incompetence is neither a strictly legal issue, nor (in many cases) an easily determined "fact", so it gets determined essentially by dueling witnesses. (Also relevant is the problem with credentialing of expert witnesses such as psychologists, which is also not a strictly legal issue.)

  7. As I said, the reason Andrea Yates was found guilty was because the "expert witness" flat out lied, and said that she had seen a woman on a Law & Order episode the night before drown her kids and get released after pleading insanity. I can understand the jury seeing that as being a very premeditated and calculated action by someone clearly aware of what they were doing.

    The truth however, is that such a L&O episode doesn't even exist. Both women were just as crazy, one of 'em just claimed to be "acting on the word of god", the other claimed to be acting on her own to prevent her kids from eternal damnation in hell. Something which the psychiatrist then undeservedly translated into "acting on the word of satan".

    I'm still not sure what his motivations were, but I think he personally decided to judge which woman had commited the more heinous crime, and make sure she went to jail even if he had to lie to make it happen.

  8. I would hesitate to draw any firm conclusions based on the different verdicts. As any experienced trial lawyer knows, any time you take a case to a jury, you are rolling the dice. No matter how prepared you are, no matter how experienced and sharp you are, you just never know what twelve random people hearing limited evidence in a courtroom are going to do once they put their heads together and try to make sense out of what they just heard. It is especially difficult for them sometimes to reconcile what the opposing lawyers are telling them happened and their explanations for it, and to square that with the instructions of the law and how to apply it that come from the judge at the end of the trial. You can try the same case to two different juries and get completely different results. Two different judges might even make a critical difference.

    Furthermore, another thing lawyers learn early in their careers is that no two cases are exactly alike. There are always facts which differ, and it's not always easy to tell which ones will be determinative of the outcome and which ones won't. The best one can do is to make educated guesses. Sorry, but it's more art than science, despite what jury consultants want lawyers and their clients to believe.

    The "right from wrong" test is hardly unique to Texas. It dates to 1843 and comes from England. It is known as the "McNaughton Rule," after a watershed case decided in England, and was widely adopted by courts and then codified by their legislatures. It is still followed in the US by about half the states, and was effectively re-introduced into federal law for use in federal courts in 1984.

    Applying the test doesn't require a determination of where morals come from. It is a subjective test of wrongness. Was the defendant suffering from a mental disease or defect to the degree that he lacked the mental capacity to appreciate that his actions were wrong? If not, then the McNaughton Rule says the defendant cannot be found not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect. A not guilty verdict would have to be returned on the basis of the jurors' reasonable doubt that the defendant did not commit the crime charged, or that somehow the crime was legally excused or justified. Otherwise, the defendant is guilty.

    Historically, the McNaughton Rule has let only a very small percentage of criminal defendants off the hook, despite popular belief. An insanity defense is rarely successful. The ones that are, however, are noteworthy.


  9. I have to side with Bubba here – you're drawing too much conclusion from too little data (with hidden confounding variables – different juries being just one example). Show me 200 cases, instead of 2, and we can talk pattern. Otherwise you're just succumbing to confirmation bias and seeing the pattern you expect to see.

  10. I stick by my statement to Exarch above. 12 jurors in a state where the Devil is a real and constant presence to religious folks are quite likely to come to this decision. Having a crackpot expert witness didn't help.

    I lived in Texas, and will freely admit that I can't be unbiased about the state and it's flavor of religious fervor. But speaking as a mental healthworker, this verdict was just plain WRONG.

  11. I'm not sure what about either verdict is clearly wrong. If you are arguing that the state's forensic psychiatry expert, Dr. Paul Deitz, apparently relied on his own religious beliefs in determining whether Andrea Yates knew that killing her kids was wrong because allegedly Satan told her to do it, versus determining that Deanna Laney thought she was doing the work of God, then perhaps you're right. That sounds like part of what Yates' new defense team plans on arguing. I don't know whether that claim has merit or not, as I wasn't in attendance at both trials, nor have I read their transcripts. All we have before us here is a shorthand account provided by a reporter for USA Today.

    If you are advocating that more criminal defendants should be found not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, then you are fighting a tough battle. Juries in Western Common Law countries strongly dislike insanity defenses in the vast majority of cases. Generally, they don't like excusing deplorable conduct on the basis of mental illness. They tend to regard it as an easily faked and/or abused get out of jail free card.

    If your main point is that religious beliefs should state out of the courtroom, then mostly you're right. It was impossible in both these cases, however, as the defendants' respective religious beliefs were material and relevant to their own beliefs about right and wrong, and thus whether the McNaughton Rule could excuse their conduct or not. If we are going to allow an insanity defense, and that insanity manifests itself in delusions of voices from God or Satan or Vishna, then we have to allow testimony regarding it. It does expose a flaw in the McNaughton Rule, but there is no perfect policy regarding insanity defenses. The alternatives have their flaws as well.

    Most likely, what these cases illustrate is that expert witness testimony can be pivotal to the outcome in some jury cases, as the USA Today reporter seems to be suggesting. I doubt any person knowledgeable about modern US trials would dispute that contention. Unfortunately, many cases, both criminal and civil, devolve into battles of the opposing experts, rather than relying mostly on the merits of the facts. It's cynical sometimes, but it's not really a separation of church and state issue.

    Many cases simply cannot be tried without expert witness testimony, so expert witnesses aren't going to be barred from courtrooms in the US in the foreseeable future. There's not an easy solution here.


  12. The "no easy answers" I can agree to!

    And yes, I do think there should be more insanity defenses. I think it's a tragedy that many lawyers don't even try for them, because–you are correct in this as well–juries don't like insanity pleas. Way too many mentally ill men and women are in prison, untreated. (And there's some evidence from psychological research that prisons induce mental illness.)

    If you've ever visited a state mental hospital, they aren't vacation spots. But getting people to let go of the "get out of jail free" idea is next to impossible. In general, it's part of a larger public misunderstanding of what mental illness is–and isn't.

    BTW, other, related, windmills I tilt at regularly include providing equitable coverage for mental and physical health, and getting rid of the death penalty. :p

  13. I'm not sure whether there should be more insanity defenses actually used at trial. The relatively obvious cases often got dismissed before trial, sometimes with pressure from the judge. I feel confident that most competent defense lawyers seek court-ordered mental evaluations by forensic psychologists or psychiatrists when there is any history of a diagnosis of or treatment for mental illness, retardation, or present circumstances that would warrant further inquiry. It's a standard, routine area to explore in an initial client interview. I've seen cases in which the judge would order an evaluation on his own, even if the defense attorney didn't request one. It's fairly routine under the right circumstances.

    On the other hand, in my jurisdiction there used to be one psychologist with a forensics practice who was routinely contracted by the state to perform court-ordered evaluations. Although I liked him personally, and even worked on the opposing side of a civil trial against him, where I got to know him even better, he found damn nearly everyone competent to stand trial and able to distinguish between the rightfulness and wrongness of their actions at the time of the alleged offense.

    In one particular case, he examined my client who was severely retarded with an IQ of about 62, but he found him to understand the wrongful nature of his conduct. The guy could barely answer any of my questions in my office, and mostly sat there with a blank look on his face, occasionally grunting, "Yeah," or "Nah." Fortunately, after getting the doctor's written report back, I went to see the judge and she called the assistant DA and chewed him out. I'll never forget what she said. "What's the matter, does [The DA] just want this guy's ass for political gain, or what? I mean, my God, he's practically a drooler!" The Asst DA quickly got the hint and agreed to dismiss the case if my guy signed an agreement never to return to our county again and never to have further contact with the alleged victim.

    My client was lucky in that case, because had he had to face a jury, that poor Steinbeckian Lenny of a guy would have died in prison in short order. He had the maturity of a four year old, but was very large.

    If you couldn't get past that psychologist, you were really taking your chances with a jury and an insanity defense. Not only did you have the state's expert saying he knew right from wrong, but you stood the very real chance that they would be extra eager to convict, on the basis that the excuse proferred made one appear to be even more guilty.

    I agree that there must be many, many inmates in jails and prisons who are mentally ill and who often go undiagnosed and untreated. It's sad. It's also sad that our present culture seems very driven to approach law enforcement with a lock 'em up and throw away the key mentality. The result, when combined with the fiasco that is the War on Drugs, is an unprecedented proportion of our population serving time in or on parole from our prisons. Many of them don't belong there.

    Yeah, state mental hospitals aren't much better than prisons, and mental illness is still widely misunderstood by the public and carries with it undeserved stigma. Maybe someday we'll live to see it brought out of the shadows and stripped of the guilt and fault associated with it. Public figures like Mike Wallace, Patty Duke, Jane Pauley, Dick Cavett, and William Styron coming forth and speaking openly and candidly has helped. I hope more will follow their examples and have the courage and fortitude to do so in the near future.


  14. Hmm. Satan is generally the character that tells you to do immoral and wrong stuff (or at least, that's how the story goes), while God is the character that tells you to do good stuff (again, that's how the story goes, sometimes with good and bad being defined by who's telling you to do them….)

    With that as the background, it's not entirely beyond the pale to say that the woman who did a bad thing thinking it was God's word cleary was insane because God never says to do bad things, while the woman who did a bad thing (or any thing) because Satan told her to do it was sane and ignoring the fact that she was being instructed to something by a being whose instructions are by definition evil.

    Of course, none of this really approaches the idea of mental illness nor the idea that the state has no way of knowing that God wasn't telling her to do these things. Part of the lynhcpin of your complaint is that the state buys into the whole god thing, and one of the early stories is God telling Abraham to kill his son, so it's not totally unreasonable that God would give a similar command today.

  15. So, basically, the second woman is not insane, because nowhere in the bible is there a precedent of someone killing their kids to spare them a life (and/or afterlife) of damnation and fiery torture in hell? Clearly, someone killing their kids to save them from the Devil is … ehm … listening to the Devil?

    So how does this work again? Because I just lost track of this religious logic thing …

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