Why The Insanity Defense Is Insane, Part II

by | Mar 10, 2002

A reader writes in: I respectfully disagree with your “shooting-from-the-hip” and “un-objective-like” quick analysis of the Yates killings (see Daily Dose column 2/28/02–“Why the Insanity Defense is Insane” ). I haven’t had time to fully analyze the issue, but my initial impression is that Yates needs medical attention rather than being jailed for murder in […]

A reader writes in: I respectfully disagree with your “shooting-from-the-hip” and “un-objective-like” quick analysis of the Yates killings (see Daily Dose column 2/28/02–“Why the Insanity Defense is Insane” ). I haven’t had time to fully analyze the issue, but my initial impression is that Yates needs medical attention rather than being jailed for murder in this tragic situation. Certainly, she is responsible for the deaths of her offspring, i.e., she did it!! But, I also know that in nature , the mother risks her life to defend her offspring from any harm!! Something happened here to reverse this basic instinct, e.g., a deep seated satanic belief, mental disorder, etc. — I don’t have the answer, but there are certainly mitigating circumstances which caused her to act inconsistent with her nature (reality!).

Dr. Hurd replies: First of all, you can’t have your responsibility and eat it too. In other words, contradictions are not allowed in the realm of reason and reality. You contradict yourself when you say, on the one hand, that of course this woman is guilty, yet on the other hand you imply that because she needs “medical attention” (whatever that might entail) she should not be jailed. I ask you: if a mother is actually responsible for deliberately killing her children, how on earth do you claim she doesn’t deserve jail time? And if a medical disease actually did make her do it, then why are we even putting her on trial? We don’t put a kidney patient on trial for hurting his kidneys. We don’t put leukemia patients on trial for doing harm to their bodies. It’s a contradiction to say she’s responsible, but that she’s also the victim of some Oprahesque “I-killed-my-child” disorder as well.

“In nature,” you write, a mother protects her offspring. How does this apply to human beings? Are we talking about tigers in the jungle or human mothers here — or do you even make such a distinction? Human beings merit separate consideration because human beings are rational animals who possess two qualities other animals do not: (1) a conceptual, reasoning faculty; and (2) as a consequence of the first, the power to make choices. The basic choice involves whether or not to use that conceptual reasoning faculty, especially when it really matters. This is why humans have moral responsibility for their actions while animals (guided only by instinct) do not. We hold humans responsible for their actions — even if acting in the heat of emotion — because they have a reasoning capacity which can (if they choose to exercise it) hold mistaken or irrational emotions in check.

Tigers and gorillas and dogs and cats possess no such capacity. Your analysis ignores and shows no recognition of this distinction between human and non-human animals. You seem to take it for granted that humans and non-humans are the same in that both are guided by instinct. In truth, non-human animals are a product of their basic instincts and genetic codes, but human beings (Ms. Yates included) are the product of their thoughts, ideas and choices. We talk of human beings having (or lacking) character; we never say such things about animals.

You basically assume — like a lot of people, I’m afraid — that the “mother instinct” which successfully operates in most cases went wrong in this case — and therefore “there’s got to be some kind of psychiatric or medical disease here.” How did the mother instinct go wrong in this case? “How the hell do I know? I’m no doctor. It just did. Some doctor will be able to figure it out. I only know there must be something medically wrong with her.” This is what I call the death-by-common-sense argument. (Quite literally death in this case since Andrea Yates, when killing her children, evidently could count on people who think like you do to advance it). “This isn’t the way things normally go in life; therefore, there must be a medical explanation. Nobody would ever choose to do such a thing.”

This, of course, begs for an answer to the question: Isn’t it possible somebody would choose to do such a thing? Haven’t you ever heard of such a thing as evil? Don’t you believe that the 9/11/01 terrorists, for example, chose their evil? Rarely, since the time of Adolf Hitler, have we seen such a “rational” execution — planned out years in advance — of an irrational goal. If it’s true of the terrorists, why can’t it be true of Andrea Yates? She didn’t spend years planning the murders, but let’s face it — some thought and planning is required to lure your children into a situation where you can drown them. Of course, I realize that the common sense argument doesn’t want to go where I’m now taking you. Everybody’s prepared to consider that people will choose one kind of evil (terrorism), but nobody wants to consider that a mother would deliberately drown her five children (even though she did). Common sense just doesn’t like the feel of that, so it therefore can’t be true.

The burden of proof is on people who make the medical disease argument. Common sense, and feelings alone, won’t do it. Why must there necessarily be something medically wrong with Andrea Yates? Clearly she’s irrational, but that’s not what the lawyers and psychiatrists seek to prove. Everybody already knows she’s irrational and troubled and crazy. What they seek to prove, in the absence of any compelling evidence, is that something is medically wrong with her — and that she’s no more responsible for her actions than a cancer patient is for the progression or expansion of his tumor. They’re hoping you won’t notice that they have no solid evidence to offer other than “post-partum depression” which is nothing more than “being-in-a-bad-mood-after-you-have-a-child-disorder.” I’m sure some women are depressed (and other things, including joyful) after having a child — but very, very few of them (if any) have ever drowned their children.

People who support this insanity defense count on the common sense argument. “Heck, what do I know? I’m no doctor. The doctors must know the answer, so leave it to them.” This is precisely the sort of responsibility abdication I fear the jurors will demonstrate in this case. The common sense argument, in cases like this, is really fueled by emotion — most likely emotions of fear and loathing. There’s an understandable dread of going into a realm where we have to consider that someone like Andrea Yates made the decision to do what she did, emotional or crazy or not. But guess what: reality trumps feelings. The reality is that Andrea Yates made her choice. If there is justice in this courtroom, she will be made to pay the piper — and not through merely a year or two under the “care” of smug psychiatrists who will fill her with medication, make excuses for her, and then release her.

Dr. Michael Hurd is a psychotherapist, columnist and author of "Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference)" and "Grow Up America!" Visit his website at: www.DrHurd.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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