June 20, 2004
A tale of two injustices

The top story in today's Chron is a status report on the unjustly convicted citizens of Tulia. They're still miles away from any kind of genuinely happy ending.

Last June, Gov. Rick Perry signed a bill freeing those who were still in prison, but their legal battles continue as they try to get the bogus convictions expunged.

More important, most of the 46 people ensnared in the corrupt 1999 drug sting have been trying to put their lives back together. Of those arrested, 38 people, most of them black, were convicted.

For some, there is not much to restore. They live on the most economically depressed side of a town in a two-decade slump.

And though they may not have committed the crimes they went to jail for, several have admitted using drugs and some have had scrapes with the law that previously landed them at least on probation.

Soon they will be rich -- at least by Tulia standards. Swisher County paid them $12,000 each as part of a settlement for their wrongful convictions. They also await a decision from the judge in charge of dividing $4 million among them.

For some, buying cars was one of the first steps in defining their new lives. Dealers, anticipating the settlement, made it easier by deferring payments until the money came in. Finding a modicum of normalcy may be more elusive.

"Everyone is poor, and there aren't good jobs in Tulia," said Vanita Gupta, an NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney who argued the cases on appeal. "The town still has a lot of resentment about the tarnishing of their town's name, so they are not interested in hiring the former defendants.

"And until they have the convictions wiped from the record, they also do not have access to public housing or student loans to go to school. Tulia has become the name for everything wrong with the war on drugs."

Miles and miles to go.

Over on the op-ed pages, there's this strong piece by Suzanne O'Malley, author of Are You There Alone?: The Unspeakable Crime of Andrea Yates. Two bits worth quoting, though the whole thing should be read:

"[What] made it challenging for me is that I wished she were insane, but she wasn't, not within the law of Texas. And yet, the reason I wished she were insane is that this was a very good woman before she became ill who was a very sick woman after she became ill. It's a rare combination, of the people that I see, to have someone of good character who is profoundly sick. She, despite having nearly incapacitating symptoms of mental illness, nonetheless knew that her actions in killing the children were to be condemned by God and by society, and that they were illegal. [S]he believed that [her children's] best chance of heaven was to die now, before they were corrupted [by Satan]."

That's Dr. Park Dietz today, speaking about Andrea Yates. And then there's this, regarding the nearly identical case of Deanna Laney:

Were the verdicts different because Yates followed orders from Satan and Laney from God? It seemed incredible, but many were tempted to think Texas jurors might be that biased. I had a different take: Andrea Yates' legal misfortune was that her delusion included knowing that the drownings were wrong, fitting snugly -- though perhaps too literally -- within the Texas sanity test. Indeed, some of the think tank members seemed surprised that Dr. Dietz had sliced legal sanity so thin. That the jury had gone along with him when, clinically, Yates was clearly insane.

I thought the public awareness generated by the Yates case was the reason for the different verdicts. For more than a year, daily Yates press coverage had taken the nation to school. In the Laney case, even psychiatrists for the defense and prosecution (again including Dr. Dietz) and the presiding judge unanimously agreed Laney was insane, the district attorney felt citizens deserved a full public hearing of the controversial case. The Laney trial became a referendum on how the public wanted to deal with sick moms who harm their infants.

The jury's acquittal of Laney spoke loud and clear. Even under Texas law -- which like numerous states uses the strictest legal definition of insanity -- the public no longer supported million-dollar trials for the crime of infanticide when commitment to a state mental institution could be negotiated without one.

So in a sense, one of the think tank experts said, Deanna Laney got Andrea Yates' verdict? Exactly, I answered. That was my opinion. (Following Laney's acquittal, she was automatically transferred to a state maximum security psychiatric hospital where she may remain for as long as 40 years.)

Emphasis mine. While I largely concur with Ms. O'Malley's conclusion, I will always believe that if Andrea Yates' jury had known what an acquittal had actually meant for her, they never would have convicted. That's something that really needs to be rectified.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 20, 2004 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack

Legal proceedings CANNOT be allowed to become referenda. The rule of law goes completely and definitively by the board if that is allowed to happen.

...and, yes, before you ask, I've been RIGHT HERE for the past ten years.

Posted by: Frank Wilhoit on June 20, 2004 4:18 PM

I agree with you, which is why I want to see the law changed. That is the only way to make this situation better.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on June 21, 2004 6:44 AM