Yates deserves help not prison

They saw the pathetic little pajamas the children wore that morning, saw videos of their dead bodies.

They heard the way Andrea Yates submerged the children in water, how they struggled, how the oldest managed to fight so ferociously that he surfaced a few times for air before his body went limp. Yates left him there, facedown, in the water.

Such graphic details, such an inflammatory crime – it’s asking too much of the average juror to consider it with the dispassion it demands. It was asking too much of the average juror to send Andrea Yates where she belongs: to a mental institution, rather than to prison. Especially when the rigid requirements of the law make it nearly impossible.

Yes, Andrea Yates knew that killing her children was “wrong.” By that inflexible and inadequate definition of sanity, the jury was right in convicting her of murder. But in the same way that facts aren’t the same as truth, an accurate verdict isn’t necessarily a just one.

In this case, Yates knew wrong from right – but she thought wrong was right.

As anyone who’s been following the case knows, Yates has said she killed her children to “save” them from Satan and to bring upon herself the wrath of her God and her community for her failures as a mother. Yates’ decision to do something she knew was wrong was utterly and totally motivated by her delusions.

But the law’s narrow definition of sanity doesn’t accommodate the myriad manifestations of madness. If any case proves the law needs to be changed, it’s this one. Because Andrea Yates, who belongs among the deluded in a hospital, will instead be placed among the depraved in a prison.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Ten years ago, another woman under seige of mental illness drowned two of her children. She pleaded guilty and was put probation – yes, probation – by a judge. Perhaps cases like these ought to be tried exclusively by judges.

Perhaps a pretrial hearing can determine if there’s sufficient evidence of insanity, and if so, the case can be assigned to a three-judge panel. Judges are used to setting aside their emotions. Judges are used to making tough, unpopular decisions. Judges can more readily take cover behind their professional mandate.

But all defendants have the right to a jury trial. And most of them think they’ll be better off with 12 of their peers who might be impressionable than a judge or a panel of judges who might be jaded. The woman who killed her children who was spared a prison sentence by a judge has completed probation, is on medication and is living a productive life.