Along the Tracks

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

The mind of a killer

[Note: Sorry about the blank Tuesday file. Tuesday’s just get that way sometimes - also, I’m doing the Bryan Times website this week, so it takes up a little extra time (if you see any mistakes on the BT site, blame me!)]

The Andrea Yates case was, and is, interesting, not because of the specifics of the crime. There was no question who killed the five Yates children. Neither was the question of mental illness the concept which made this case stand out, although that angle received the most media attention. However, that obsession by the media shines a light on what was interesting in the Andrea Yates murder case.

First, consider the scenario where all the specifics of the crime were the same, except it was the father who had killed the children. It was he who had claimed this world is too evil and dangerous for his children, so he did what he felt he had to do. Would the insanity plea have seemed plausible in that case? I hope you don’t think it would, because the situation is, unfortunately, played out with numbing regularity across the country. A father kills his children, sometimes also kills his wife, because he has lost hope in their future. Often, the father then turns the gun on himself. That is where some of those murders diverge from the Yates case.

But not all, perhaps not even most. After offing the family, the father disappears with cash and credit cards to “start over.” A manhunt ensues, and the murderer is tracked down, tried, and either sent to prison for life or put on death row.

Does anyone doubt those men are crazy? Only someone mentally unstable would commit such a horrible crime. Yet very rarely are they declared insane, placed in an institution, and given their freedom after being “cured.” The very thought of such an outcome is frightening - and offensive - on its face.

Yet that was the outcome we were expected to buy for Andrea Yates. She was mentally ill, her defenders (not just her lawyers, but many from “enlightened” organizations and the media) argued. We should be ashamed for even considering punishing her for the crime. She needs help, not prison.

The first rule of the criminal justice system should be to protect the general public from those who have been found by the system to be guilty of violent acts. The question of whether the criminals could, potentially, became contributing members of society once again, either through rehabilitation or psychiatric therapy, is important but secondary. Once the public is safe, we can work on turning the convicted into positive contributors. For lesser crimes (assault, robbery, drug trafficking) the protective period can be shorter, and the rehabilitative period may very well last beyond actual incarceration, through counseling, therapy, education and other means. But for some of the most heinous acts (murder, rape and repetitive sexual abuse come to mind), an assurance of protection for the public may very well require permanent incarceration. With effort and good fortune, those convicts might also be rehabilitated or cured of their mental problems. They would then have to make their positive contributions from confinement.

The idea Andrea Yates’ defenders tried to pass off was that it would be wrong for us to hold her responsible for her actions. Perhaps, in a few years, she would come to grips with her mental illness and would then be able to return to a normal life. That idea is not only myopic, it is frightening. Thank goodness the jury agreed.

Later, we’ll look at the person who was sickest - and maybe even most responsible for the children’s deaths - in the Yates household.

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