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Is Andrea Pia Yates, the Houston woman who drowned her five children in a bathtub, insane or evil? Should mental depression be a get-out-of-jail-free card for killers?

Earlier this month, Yates pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity, and the Harris County district attorney announced that the death penalty is an option in the case.

When she offed her offspring (ages 7, 5, 3, 2 and 6 months), Yates was deranged, her lawyers and supporters agree.

She was suffering from postpartum depression, a condition that was relatively unknown a few years ago but which now is said to afflict 20 percent of new mothers. Or, she was just severely depressed. Had she been in her right mind, she would never have done something so terrible, we are assured.

Well, I’m not so sure.

It wasn’t spur of the moment. Yates told investigators she’d been thinking about doing away with her kids for months.

She wasn’t in a daze. Yates had the presence of mind to chase her 7-year-old son, Noah, around the house to give him his bath, call the police and her husband after the drownings, tell an officer who arrived on the scene “I killed my children,” and give investigators a detailed account of the crime.

A court-ordered psychiatric evaluation found her competent to stand trail. A competency hearing is scheduled for Aug. 28.

Talk-show savants say Yates had to be off her rocker. But is the killer mom any crazier than, say, Jeffrey Dahmer, who was convicted of murdering 15 young men and boys, having sex with their corpses and cannibalizing them? When police searched his apartment, they found a box of body parts and three heads in his refrigerator.

Yet a jury rejected the insanity defense in Dahmer’s case. Last week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court upheld the murder conviction of a man who stabbed and bludgeoned to death his in-laws. His lawyers claimed he was paranoid and convinced they were out to get him.

How’s this for crazy? A gang targets a group for no reason other than their religion. With the help of accomplices, they round up 6 million people they’d never met, take them to camps, gas them and incinerate their bodies. Should the Nuremberg defendants have been acquitted by reason of insanity?

Dahmer said he had a compulsion. (The killings were “addictive.”) The Nazis had a consuming hatred that was hardly rational. Does that excuse their crimes?

What about Susan Smith, the South Carolina woman who sent her two sons to a watery grave in 1994? Smith’s lawyers said she let her car roll into a lake (with the boys belted inside) while “in the depths of emotional anguish.” Her depression was attributed to the suicide of her father and molestation by her stepfather. Still, Smith was convicted of murder.

Granted, Yates was depressed. Who isn’t? Just thinking about the outpouring of sympathy for the woman depresses me. If depression is an excuse for murder, prepare for a bloodbath.

The relevant question is this: However her twisted mind was working that fateful day, did Yates know she was ending the lives of five innocent children?

If she’s found not guilty by reason of insanity, Yates will be confined to a comfortable mental hospital until professionals pronounce her cured. That will be in what, three or four years? Doesn’t seem like much of a price for five dead children.

The public displays its own schizophrenia on the Yates case. We don’t want her treated like a cold-blooded killer, but we don’t want her to go scot-free, either (which offends our sense of justice).

But these are contradictory positions. Either Yates is responsible for her actions or she isn’t. If the former, she should be punished to the full extent of the law. If the latter, and the experts think she’s been healed, Yates should be released with an apology for having detained her.

Our society increasingly has a problem confronting evil (which, like good, is essentially a religious concept). It’s frightening to think that a sane person could ruthlessly slaughter five children, kill and cannibalize 15 young men or murder 6 million strangers.

It’s actually comforting to attribute such horrors to insanity. Mental illness can be treated with drugs and psychotherapy. But how do you treat evil? With the weapons of the spirit. And, when necessary, with very strong bars or a lethal injection.

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