December 17, 2003
I'm glad you see it that way now, but...

On the one hand, I suppose I should be glad that one of the prosecutors in the Andrea Yates case is now telling health care professionals that Yates was very, very sick when she killed her children.

Andrea Yates had one last chance to recover in time from the postpartum depression that had tortured her for years, one of her prosecutors said Tuesday.

But Yates lost that chance when she was released from a hospital in League City, while she was dangerously delusional, Joseph S. Owmby told the 2003 Child Abuse Conference at the Holiday Inn Riverwalk.

Owmby, a Harris County assistant district attorney who helped prosecute Yates for capital murder last year, told the group of about 200 area mental health and law enforcement professionals that had Yates received more hospital treatment for her depression and psychosis, she probably wouldn't have murdered her children.

The psychiatrist who treated her at the hospital, Dr. Mohammad Saeed, testified that he decided to take Yates off her anti-psychotic medication and testified that he saw no evidence she was psychotic when he examined her on June 18, 2001, two days before she drowned the children.

What happened two weeks after Yates' release is a frightening example of how postpartum depression and psychosis can lead to severe child abuse, Owmby said.

On the other hand, I have to ask: Where the hell was this kind of thinking in the Harris County DA's office last March? These guys asked for the death penalty, though they didn't push it very aggressively in the punishment phase. As if life in prison is what such a dangerously delusional person needed.

Here's a quote from a rant by Chron Editorial Board member James Gibbons after Andrea Yates was sentenced, in which he notes that Yates seems to be the only person capable of distinguishing between right and wrong, which was the determining factor in her being found legally sane:

The Harris County district attorney, Chuck Rosenthal, parades around with a "What would Jesus do?" bracelet on his wrist, but his reflex action was to seek the death penalty for a woman who suffers acute psychosis. He's too clueless to see the contradiction.

Obviously Rosenthal is too impaired to know right from wrong. It would be a healthy start if the district attorney would give some indication he could distinguish the crucified from the crucifiers.

The defense and prosecution agreed Andrea Yates was psychotic before she killed her children and was psychotic afterward. But the prosecution alone maintained that Yates suddenly became sufficiently sane while she was performing her tragic acts - sane enough to control her actions - to justify her execution or life imprisonment. The jury preferred to give her life in prison.

Setting aside right and wrong, anyone who would give credence to this theory of temporary sanity - and every man and woman on the jury did - obviously has difficulty distinguishing fact from fiction and the plausible from the implausible.

In his closing argument, prosecutor Joe Owmby contended that Yates had the civic duty to seek help from the clergy as an alternative to murder. People who actually believe patients with the most severe mental illnesses have a duty to identify and seek out the help they need cannot be relied on to know the difference between right and wrong.

I know that "insanity" is a legal definition only, but I still have a hard time believing that anyone could take more than a cursory glance at the facts of the Yates case and not conclude that the woman was sick and not evil. Chuck Rosenthal, like his predecessor Johnny Holmes, is fond of saying that he doesn't write the laws, he just enforces them. Well, there's such a thing as prosecutorial judgment, and I believe it was a serious lapse of judgment that led him to go to trial, even if the state wound up "winning". I agree that ultimately, it's the Lege's responsibility to fix the underlying problem of our draconian insanity law, but that still doesn't absolve Rosenthal for his role in this travesty.

Looking back, I see that when I first wrote about the Yates trial, I was a lot more ambivalent than I am now. I can't point to any one reason for my shift in opinion - in retrospect, I think I was trying a little too hard last year to see things from the prosecution's perspective. I think my hypothetical question ("If Yates' erratic and ultimately lethal behavior had been caused by a brain tumor, would you feel differently about her?") is still one that's worth contemplating.

"In your jobs, you have the opportunity to see women suffering from postpartum mental illness and to get them the proper treatment they and their families deserve," Owmby said.

May I suggest to you, Joe Owmby, that people with your job sometimes have that same opportunity as well.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 17, 2003 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack

Thanks for your comments on Assistant Harris County DA Owmby's recent remarks about the Andrea Yates case. Like you, I am amazed at what now appears to be a recognition that Andrea Yates was not entirely responsible for the deaths of her five children, based on the failure of her psychiatrist to treat her properly. I wrote to Owmby asking whether he was now seeking public and perhaps religious salvation for his role in sending a severely mentally ill woman to jail for life. Then, we read this past week that another Assistant DA says Ms Yates should have been executed. One can only wonder what series of events in her life would cause a prosecutor to be so vicious in her pursuit of "justice". If Andrea Yates deserves to be in jail for an act she probably had no way of preventing (any more than she would have had of preventing an epileptic seizure) then we may as well close down all of our psychiatry facilities, quit teaching psychiatry in our med schools, and just build one hell of a lot of prisons.

Posted by: Dennis on January 26, 2004 6:27 AM