Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Mark Davis: Yates Jury is Wrong

August 01, 2006
The Dallas Morning News
Mark Davis

Did anyone notice that, during her entire trial, Andrea Yates managed to refrain from killing anyone? And far shy of that, she managed to avoid flailing about on the defense table or screaming that the devil was after her?

How can this be?

Maybe it's because, even though she is a certified mental patient, she is prone to long periods of relative lucidity. This is the usual rhythm, even with people suffering the most grievous disorders. Sometimes they are in control, and sometimes they are not. So how does anyone magically know how coherent she was when she methodically drowned her five beautiful children on June 20, 2001?

She did manage to appear appropriately catatonic as her not guilty verdict was read Wednesday, delivered by a jury that had been snowed into believing it knew her mental state that dark day.

In March 2002, jurors rightly found that while she was indeed deeply mentally ill, they were not sufficiently clairvoyant to know that she was unable to restrain herself from killing the kids nine months earlier. Thus, they reasonably held her responsible for her actions.

How does this become an acquittal years later?

The retrial itself was not a problem. If a prosecution witness lies on the stand, it's fair to expect a second shot at blemish-free justice. But Ms. Yates hit the jackpot as the jury pool stars aligned to rescue her from the conviction she so richly deserved and had previously earned.

The fabrication of a barely relevant fact by a doctor on the witness stand in 2002 changed none of the criteria of her guilt when the first jury returned its proper verdict. Now we are told that with the same evidence before them, a second jury finds a reason to send her not to prison but to a mental hospital, where, if she snaps out of this pesky insanity sometime down the road, she may well walk free.

This is an affront to justice, logic and decency. Justice is denied to her victims and endangered for future victims. Logic is turned on its ear with the notion that witnesses and, thus, juries somehow retroactively know defendants' states of mind months or years after crimes. And it is contemptible to make this case some referendum on our collective sensitivity about postpartum pathology or mental illness in general.

But that's just what defense attorney George Parnham proudly did, calling the verdict a "watershed event in the treatment of mental illness."

That is stunningly perverse. The surest way to hijack justice is to sacrifice it on the altar of some modern feel-good motive. Sadly, such attempts are met with plenty of public support. Heaps of scorn await those who actually suggest that even the mentally ill might be accountable sometimes. When I praised the first Yates jury, I was accused of despising the mentally afflicted, marginalizing the pain of postpartum depression and - my favorite - hating women.

No one needs to feel one bit less caring or sensitive for recognizing that the Yates case called for a conviction. If these jurors were at least as caring and sensitive about her victims or the need for sensible justice, we would not have this sorry result.

So do such ridiculous extrapolations occur in every murder case now? Does every defendant who can come off as sufficiently deranged months or years later score a get-out-of-jail-free card because this precedent says any symptom of mental illness is a guarantee that the illness was indeed raging at full strength the day of the crime? We deserve better justice than that. Noah, John, Paul, Luke and Mary Yates certainly deserved better justice than that.

So now, as Ms. Yates is committed to a mental hospital stay of indefinite length, I hope at least we can be spared more sickening public pronouncements from ex-husband Rusty, who saw fit to share how pleased he was that Andrea was acquitted.

I'm sure his relief is deep. Now his abominable decision to make more babies with a mentally ill wife is no longer a murder to which he would be viewed by many as an accessory.

The rest of us are left to mourn for the Yates children, whose suffering we can scarcely comprehend. That hurt is compounded by how preventable this tragedy seems to have been.

And the final blow is a justice system that failed to do the right thing.

Mark Davis is a columnist for the Dallas Morning News. The Mark Davis Show is heard weekdays nationwide on the ABC Radio Network. His e-mail address is mdavis@wbap.com.

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