Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Andrea Yates Not Guilty

Andrea Yates, the woman who made headlines for drowning her five children so they wouldn't grow up to become evil, who was convicted of murder, whose conviction was overturned, and who was given a new trial, was found not guilty of murder.

This does not mean that she is innocent. This means that she is not guilty. The reason given is insanity. The insanity defense is basically a last-ditch defense offered up by defense attorneys, and usually isn't used unless there's no other way to go. What happens is, the case is such a slam-dunk for the prosecution that there's no real way to defend your client, and she or he will go to jail, basically for the rest of his or her life, if not be subjected to capital punishment. Insanity, however, sends the defendant to an institution. These people have the glimmer of hope that someday they might recover from their insanity, and then be released back into the general populace. However, this is an extremely rare situation, where the hospital determines these people are sane enough to leave the hospital.

Andrea Yates won, but she won in name only.


janet said...

Steve, thanks for stopping by my own blog. It was nice to get some legal-insider input into this matter. I plan to add more of a mental health perspective soon. Glad I popped over here, too. I think I have some new reading to do. :)

Michelle said...

I'm involved in a matter where the defence looks like pleading under the mental health act (different to insane) I spoke to my clients mother yesterday and she was upset that they would use this as she wanted the baddie to go to jail. I spent ages trying to convince her that it's not easy to plea under that situation ( well here it isn't) i don't think it worked :(

Yates will be in there for a long long long time, makes no difference.

JMJanssen said...

From a psychological persepctive, your analysis of use of the NGRI plea is quite unfair. I'm not sure if you meant for this post to read as such, but to me it reads as though people just go to NGRI whether or not they need to. The current IDRA (Insanity Defense Reform Act) standard has laid the burden of proving insanity solely on the defense, not a position most defense attorneys would like to be in. Also, NGRI has only been used in less than 2 percent of cases*. The success rate from that <2% is less than 1/2. Unfortunately for that statistic, NGRI pleas are generally very high profile so the general public has been lead to believe that it is used more often than that <2%. NGRI successes, such as this one get even more attention.

You don't really suggest an alternative in this summary. NGRI needs to be available, there are people in this world who do things without mens rea. They need the help that mental health professionals can provide, not a jail. I would personally be for mandating a bit of jail time after they are released from the institution, under a "guilty but mentally ill" verdict that some states have adopted.

JMJanssen said...

Sorry, the * was to cite that statistic, from Abnormal Psychology, 12th ed., 2004. Butcher, Mineka, and Hooley.

Steve said...

Thank you, JM. As you know, I'm not able to speak on the psychological perspective, so it's nice to hear another's input on the subject.

The NGRI is an affirmative defense, and as such, the burden of proof lies in the defense. It is much more difficult to prove insanity than it is to raise questions regarding reasonable doubt, and attempting to have a client committed doesn't jive with the lawyer's tenet to zealously work in the best interest of his or her client. As such, it's rare to see an insanity defense, as you noted.

There are many situations where the client does lack a mens rea, though the actus reus did occur. In those situations, NGRI is valid and necessary, and a good lawyer should be able to see that. That lawyer's job is a little more difficult as he has to fight a prosecution whose job it is to send a person who committed a crime to jail and a jury who has been trained to believe that NGRI is a smokescreen defense where the person gets to spend his or her days carousing about a country club on some anti-depressants.

The reason I submitted NGRI as a last-ditch defense is a part of this larger issue. There are cases where there is little else an attorney can do; the prosecution's case is that strong, such as repeated confessions, or video. In such a situation, the defense lawyer still has an obligation to defend the client to the best of his ability, and in that situation, when no other defenses are available, a lawyer must look to NGRI as an alternative away from the client spending the rest of his or her life in jail or facing capital punishment. This combination of factors is what makes this defense undesirable, like you said, and is what leads to my conclusion that it is a last-ditch defense, though I should have added the caveat "in many cases."

Bellejar said...

I think she will be in a hospital for the rest of her life no doubt.