December 06, 2005
SCOTUS to review insanity defense

The Supreme Court will review whether states must provide for an insanity defense in criminal cases and what their standards for evidence are. Though the suit in question originated in Arizona, it may have an effect on the Andrea Yates case, among others.

Following Texas' law, which is similar to Arizona's, a Harris County jury found Yates to be sane when she drowned her five children in a bathtub in 2001. The jury convicted her of two capital murders in the deaths of three of her children and sentenced her to life in prison.

Yates, who thought she was possessed by Satan, had a history of schizophrenia and postpartum depression and had attempted suicide twice before killing her children, according to testimony.

Her conviction in the deaths of three of the children was thrown out on appeal because of an unrelated issue. She remains in custody as prosecutors prepare to retry her.

"It speaks volumes that the court has decided to hear the (Arizona) case," said George Parnham, Yates' Houston defense attorney. "It's obviously an indicator that our judicial system is beginning to recognize the inadequacy of our laws. The reality of mental illness, particularly involving a person who is operating in a world of psychotic delusion, is beginning to be appreciated by our judges, and eventually will be by our prosecutors."

Alan Curry, a Harris County assistant district attorney who handled the Yates case on appeal, said the Supreme Court case is unlikely to have a direct impact on her case. But he said the high court could give states some guidance on what constitutes insanity and what evidence should be considered.

"I'm all in favor of discussing it and figuring out the right way to do it," Curry said.

He expressed concern that the justices could change the law and make it too broad, allowing people like Yates to go to a mental hospital instead of prison and sparing people like Angel Maturino Resendiz, Texas' serial "railroad killer," whose insanity defense was rejected.

No law and no standard will ever be perfect. It may not be possible to reliably differentiate between the Yateses and the Railroad Killers. The question is where do you choose to err.

I'll take Assistant DA Curry at his word and agree that we should have a discussion about how best to handle mentally ill defendants. If you want to get started, here's a provocative place to begin.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 06, 2005 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack