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Andrea Yates killed all five of her children by drowning — an act of horror that shocked the entire world. It was one of those news items that made you stop; it made you think of your own kids. As time passed we learned more about the person we thought was a beast. We learned about postpartum depression, psychosis and schizophrenia. We learned that unchecked and untreated mental illness can have deadly results. We learned of other women afflicted with the same or similar illnesses who have not been charged with capital murder. To begin with, Texas has a decrepit and outdated system for dealing with the mentally ill. It is a system run not by doctors, hospitals and health professionals, but by insurance companies. Managed care has left those who need the benefit of mental health care with 15-minute medicine checks with their psychiatrists, very limited therapy from a psychologist and very limited periods of hospitalization — a recipe for disaster. Five babies lost their lives in part because of the system. Five beautiful babies were deprived of their lives because of the state and the nation ignoring the problem of mental illness. While we cannot ignore whatever role Russell Yates may have played in this tragedy, he is as much a victim as Andrea because the system failed them both. It is all too easy to make a scapegoat out of Russell when the real culprit is the system itself. Later we began to learn of a different problem — how insanity is treated by the courts. The Harris County district attorney’s office charged Andrea Yates with two counts of capital murder and announced that it would seek the death penalty. George Parnham and Wendell Odom filed a notice of intent to raise the insanity defense. Everyone agreed that Yates suffers from a mental illness. In her punishment-phase final argument, prosecutor Kaylyn Williford called it a “severe mental defect.” Oddly enough, that was one of the things the defense had to prove in guilt: innocence. The insanity defense in Texas requires that one not know that their conduct was wrong because of a severe mental disease or defect; it’s a legal theory that has not kept pace with the times. When an individual is diagnosed with cancer, we demand that she be treated. There is simply no explanation for not providing the same level of care for those afflicted with mental illness. In describing her illness during his final argument Parnham said, “If this lady does not meet the definition of insanity, no one does, and we should wipe it off the books.” Less than four hours later the jury rejected her insanity defense and found her guilty of capital murder. Texas’ strict standard requires more than most defendants can prove to be successful on a claim of insanity. A person suffering from psychosis and/or schizophrenia might actually know that what they are doing is wrong in the eyes of the law, but because of their illness, still not be able to control themselves. The law does not help these people. Yates is one of those people. While knowing that it was illegal, that society would consider what she did wrong, she still drowned her kids. Her doctors and the state’s doctors testified that even knowing that she thought that she had to do it to save her children from hell, she could not stop. RIGHT OR WRONG? Schizophrenia has no on/off switch. A psychotic episode is not a voluntary mental state. It is as involuntary as the truck driver who has a heart attack and mows down a family out for a walk. We would excuse the truck driver because of his medical condition. Mental conditions deserve the same treatment. Texas fails people like Yates. It is time for Texas law to recognize that someone can be insane and understand that her act is wrong. The medical profession has long recognized this. In fact, mental health professionals do not factor in whether a person knows right from wrong when assessing or diagnosing a mental illness. Yates will most certainly appeal her conviction. The courts will have a chance to review the important issues her case raised. For instance, should the jury be informed what a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity really means? The law precludes it. A jury knows what it means to find a defendant guilty or not guilty. The jury should know that not guilty by reason of insanity is not a pass. While the defendant is legally acquitted, it is far from a free ride. Post-acquittal the defendant is evaluated for a civil commitment proceeding. A person found not guilty by reason of insanity can be involuntarily committed for up to the maximum amount of time she could have been incarcerated for the crime or longer. If there is any good to come out of the Andrea Yates case it is the new focus on the Texas mental health care system and the insanity defense. It is time for Texas to change. It is time for Texas to mandate health care for those who need mental help. The mentally ill have been left to substandard health care for too long. It is time to change the insanity defense. Make it a defense that means something. Make it a defense that recognizes the intricacies and nuances of mental illness. Make the change not in the name of Yates but in the name of those five children. Christopher L. Tritico is a partner in Essmyer & Tritico in Houston. He was a member of Timothy McVeigh’s legal team. McVeigh was convicted and executed for bombing the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.

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