Mother must answer for her deadly choice

January 07, 2002|By Richard E. Vatz and Lee S. Weinberg

"FIVE DEAD children." That was the major reason District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal of Harris County, Texas, gave for seeking the death penalty against Andrea Yates.

A Houston jury has unanimously decided that Ms. Yates is mentally competent to stand trial in the June 20 drowning of her five children. The finding indicates that she understands the nature of the charges against her and is able to aid in her own defense. She will plead not guilty by reason of insanity in her trial, scheduled to start today, with testimony expected to begin a month later.

Let's look at Ms. Yates' claim that she is legally insane; that is, according to the Texas Penal Code, "as a result of severe mental disease or defect, [she] did not know that [her] conduct was wrong" at the time of the killings. The prosecution and defense agree that Ms. Yates was mentally ill when she killed her children, but the prosecution argues that she was not legally insane.

Houston police Officer Frank Stumpo, called to the house by Ms. Yates after the five children were killed, recalls asking her, "Do you realize what you have done?" She answered "Yes, I do; I killed my children." She later said she was a "bad mother."

There is probably no crime that creates more poignant incredulity than the killing of children by a parent. Time's Richard Stengel said in a piece for that he couldn't write a story about the killings because he is a father and also had nothing to add to the story. "There's just no point trying to comprehend the incomprehensible," he wrote.

But are the killings of the beautiful Yates children - Noah, John, Paul, Luke and Mary - incomprehensible; that is, incapable of being understood?


Ms. Yates admits to contemplating murdering her children for a considerable time before doing so. So much for her having "snapped" - acting in a fit of uncontrollable rage - a term used by many to circularly imply that her acts of killing lacked premeditation. In addition, Ms. Yates had furiously chased and eventually killed the oldest, 7-year-old Noah, who was desperately trying to escape the slaughter.

Ms. Yates' attorney, supported by her husband, argues that she should not be held responsible for her actions because her mental illness and her treatment rendered her unable to "know that [her] conduct was wrong."

She had been treated with anti-depressants and anti-psychotic medicine. They worked, it was said. Then they didn't work. She was taken off the anti-psychotic drug Haldol. Specifically, Ms. Yates' husband and her attorney claim that she killed her children because of postpartum depression, compounded by her father's recent death.

But there is a difference between mood and action; action almost always involves choice. Millions of new mothers, for physiological or social reasons (or both), suffer depression. Psychiatrists estimate about 400,000 women suffer from severe postpartum depression, but few kill their children; about 200 children are killed by their mothers each year - and their mothers should be held accountable for their choice.

What motivated Ms. Yates to commit this horrible crime?

With each additional child, Ms. Yates had become, like many other young mothers, stressed out. Her life became more difficult to manage, especially since she had other obligations as well, including taking care of her father before he died.

Add to this anxieties and strains about which little was known. As one example, Ms. Yates' brother hinted of serious problems between her and Russell, her husband, who appeared on 60 Minutes (ignoring a gag order, as did the prosecutor) to blame his wife's doctors for improper treatment of her. In addition, Ms. Yates had worked as a nurse in a cancer clinic, but she gave that up as her obligations to her children and father increased.

Obviously, none of these life problems justifies the killings. The killings are choices for which she must be held responsible.

Richard E. Vatz is professor of communication at Towson University. Lee S. Weinberg is professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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