Texas justice isn't same as American justice

March 22, 2002|By Andrew Cohen

DENVER -- The Andrea Yates trial meant a lot of things to a lot of different people.

It spurred a national debate over how the mentally ill are treated in our justice system. It generated much awareness and discussion of the nature of post-partum illnesses, schizophrenia and even filicide -- the troubling phenomenon in which parents kill their own children. It became a symbol for both victims' and women's rights groups. And, of course, it focused national attention on the insanity defense.

These are all positives to come out of such a negative event.

If even one troubled family asks for and receives help as a result of knowing just how bad mental illness can become -- if one husband or wife thinks of the horror that can happen in a home when depression and psychosis aren't properly treated -- Mrs. Yates will not have killed in vain.

And if even one person who followed the trial decides to help mentally ill people get help before they do harm -- if just one person is moved to action by the inconceivability of what this loving Houston mother did to her five children in June -- those children will not have drowned utterly in vain.

The result of the Yates trial in no way represents a national referendum on the social, legal and medical issues raised by the case.

If Andrea Yates had drowned her children in another state, the result easily could have been different. Had she even drowned her children in a different Texas county, the result might have been different. And had another trial judge been assigned to her case instead of one who had spent 13 years as a prosecutor, Mrs. Yates might have had more of a fighting chance to succeed.

The same is true for jury selection. Had defense attorneys not gambled and lost in their belief that women would be more sympathetic to a troubled mother -- there were eight women and four men on the jury -- the jury might have taken more than three hours to find her guilty. Or jurors might not have found her guilty at all.

Like any other trial of any other defendant in any other case in the country, the Yates trial was a product not only of the evidence and the law but also of its environment and the personalities involved. The precise confluence of events and people probably will never be repeated.

That's why no two cases are ever the same and why people around the world would be best served by not reading too much into what this judge, these prosecutors, these experts and these jurors have wrought.

That Mrs. Yates was found guilty in a legal blink of an eye after a three-week-long trial doesn't presage the end of the insanity defense around the country; it's not a body blow to mental health advocates; it won't relegate post-partum depression diagnoses to the scrap heap of medical history. It's one verdict in one jurisdiction by one jury presided over by one judge.

In fact, having covered the trial, I think the verdict and how it was reached say far more about Texas than about Mrs. Yates, who is still severely ill.

It says that a majority of the people who live in Texas have made a collective decision to render their version of justice in a particularly tough way. It says that Texas society does not look ill upon a jury that would spend such a short amount of time deliberating -- the word itself connotes a slow, simmering process -- when so much is at stake. It says that experts in general and doctors in particular aren't to be trusted over good old-fashioned horse sense.

If the country's in an uproar over how Mrs. Yates has been treated, it shouldn't be. It's not like Texas justice is purely and wholly American justice. There are plenty of other states in this nation with broader definitions of legal insanity and less demanding ideas of crime and punishment and justice.

There are plenty of places where Mrs. Yates wouldn't even have been charged, much less convicted so quickly and sentenced to life. And there are plenty of good legal and political reasons why. When you consider the fabric of our state laws, we are almost as diverse a nation legally as we are ethnically, politically, socially and culturally.

So if Texans want to gut their insanity defense in word and deed, they are perfectly entitled to. If Texas jurors want to show little mercy to the pitiful, they are entitled to. And if the people of Texas want to change this dynamic in the law, they are entitled to through the ballot box and the soapbox.

But if the good people of Texas don't want to change these things, if they are happy with the way their criminal justice system dispenses justice, they are perfectly entitled to let things be. Whether it is justice or judges, verdicts or laws, outsider perceptions or internal realities, you usually get what you deserve.

Andrew Cohen covered the Andrea Yates trial as a legal analyst and commentator.

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