“If this woman doesn’t meet the test of insanity in this state, no one does. Zero. We might as well wipe it from the books.”
– George Parnham, attorney for Andrea Yates
So says Andrea Yates’s lawyer, and so say I. But there’s a bigger question here than what should constitute insanity under Texas law. It is a question that transcends state residency and pierces to the very heart of America: Just what kind of people do we think we are?
The facts in the Yates case have been repeated so many times that they’ve already lost their power to shock. In the space of just a few minutes, this 37-year-old woman drowned her five children, aged 7, 5, 3, 2 and 6 months. But this was more than a crime – it was an act so revolting, so purposeless and so irrational that no matter what the legal mumbo jumbo of Texas says, it could only be called insane. And now it is crunch time, because what we call it – in the type of sentence this pathetic and probably schizophrenic woman receives – will reveal more about us than about the fate that Andrea Yates actually deserves.
“If the law supposes that,” said Mr. Bumble, “the law is a ass, a idiot.”
– Charles Dickens, “Nicholas Nickleby”
First off, how was Andrea Yates’s act not insane? By what rational definition could her killings be considered even remotely rational? There were no insurance proceeds to collect, no assassin’s fee paid, no murderous ideology justifying the murders, no cheating spouse to be eliminated or rival for power liquidated. Not only was there no rational reason for these killings, any rational person looking at the facts could only conclude that there was no chance for escape, no plan laid to blame it on somebody else, flee across some border or claim self-defense. These killings were sheer insanity, and any law that holds otherwise is defective in the extreme. I know it, you know it, and every American knows it.
So why do we tolerate laws that punish the Clearly Nuts with death rather than, like John Hinckley, Reagan’s assassin manqu?, what they actually deserve – life in a mental institution. I don’t like to think of us a vengeful people, but why else compound acts of clearly insane murder with the further act of judicial murder? Does anyone seriously believe that the next Andrea Yates (may there never be another) will actually be deterred by judicially killing her?
“Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.”
– Matthew 5: 7
Sure, I know that some readers are going to say that we ought to give Andrea Yates the same mercy that she showed her children – none. But what does adopting such a tit-for-tat standard make us? If the test for mercy is to show no more mercy than the object of mercy showed others – then what does that make us? We say that we are a society founded on Judeo-Christianity; including Islam, all three faiths claim to be founded on the quality of mercy. In fact, it is exactly that quality that separates us from the evil in this world – including the acts of Andrea Yates.
Whatever one thinks should happen to cold-blooded murderers, professional assassins and genocidal killers, Andrea Yates is not among them. Looking at that pathetic wreck of a woman, it is crystal clear that, at the very most, she is among the least of us. And in a humane society, if the quality of mercy is intended for anyone, it is for the very least among us. In fact, as a society we will be judged not by how we treat the best of us, but rather how we treat the least among us.
So I say give Andrea Yates exactly what she deserves. The same thing we gave John Hinckley, Sirhan B. Sirhan, the Son of Sam and all the other pathetic, walking human disasters among us, the people who succeeded in fooling the world – for a while – that they deserved their liberty. I say lock ‘em up for life, in prison, or where appropriate, in a mental hospital. But don’t judicially kill them in the name of the public – for the simple reason that the American public claims to be better than that. I say that it’s time to prove it.
It should be life in the loony bin for Andrea Yates.