Vengeance and the mentally ill

US District Judge William Wayne Justice criticized the criminal justice system for “a spirit of vengeance” in dealing with the mentally ill. He was in town at the UT-Houston Medical School giving a lecture.

For proof look no further than the Andrea Yates case, U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice said during an address to psychiatrists and others at the University of Texas-Houston Medical School.

“Andrea Yates did a monstrous thing, but is not a monstrous human being,” Justice said. “She is, ultimately, a pathetic and tragic figure.”

What is most disturbing about the Yates case, Justice said, is that it conformed to the law as it exists today.

“We punish those we cannot justly blame,” Justice said. “Such a result is not, I believe, worthy of a civil society.”


The change reversed an element of law that could be traced back to English common law of 1278, Justice said.

Texas and most other states changed laws regarding the insanity defense after John Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity to charges related to his 1981 attempted assassination of President Reagan.

Texas reacted by striking from its law a clause that said a defendant could be found not guilty by reason of insanity if he “was not capable of conforming his conduct to the requirements of the law.” The change made it easier for prosecutors to win convictions, Justice said, because they had to prove only that the defendant knew what he was doing and knew his conduct was wrong.

The way the criminal justice system treats the mentally ill reflects poorly on society, Justice said.

“If we reject the moral necessity to distinguish between those who willingly do evil, and those who do dreadful acts on account of unbalanced minds, we will do injury to these people. But the ultimate injury is the one we will inflict on ourselves, and on the rule of law.”

Way back when, I asked if Andrea Yates had done what she did as a result of a brain tumor, would people still judge her as harshly? The sad thing is that this question drew comments from people for whom the answer is a firm Yes. All I can say is that I hope none of them ever have to deal with a mentally ill family member.

If you need further convincing that “mental illness” is really “brain illness” and not Corporal Klinger/One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest foolishness, I suggest you read Ted Barlow’s post on the fraud of Freud.

(On a side note, I just want to take this opportunity to say that whatever you may think of him, “Judge Justice” is possibly the best name ever. Of course, if he were ever to be appointed to the Supreme Court, he’d be – wait for it – “Mr. Justice Justice”.)

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6 Responses to Vengeance and the mentally ill

  1. Mental illness is not the same as legal insanity, and the Andrea Yates case treated it accordingly, as a mitigating factor that kept her from death row. Yet mental illness, while tragic, does not absolve a person from their crimes if they have knowledge of the inherent wrongness of their actions.

    As for the brain tumor analogy, I tend to balk about comparing something as controversial and nebulous as postpartum psychosis to something as physical and concrete as a brain tumor. In any case the point is moot, since a brain tumor is virtually always a death sentence anyway.

  2. R. Alex says:

    As far as I’m concerned, Yates’s life was over when she killed the children. I did not want her to be freed ever, which means that I’m glad they came to the verdict that they did.

    On a personal level, my problem with the outpouring of sympathy for Yates was that killing your children should not elicit sympathy. not just on a more level, but on a practical one. There are a lot of borderline women out there, and losing control shouldn’t be seen as an “out” that will win you sympathy.


  3. I am aware of the distinction between the medical definition of insanity and the legal one. The Texas penal code gives you a really small window to aim at – you have to be able to prove that at the time of the criminal act, you didn’t know that it was wrong.

    Andrea Yates clearly knew, from the statement she gave to police, that what she did was “wrong” in the sense that she’d be punished for it. The problem is that she believed she had to do what she did in order to save her children’s souls. She believed that she was doing the right thing for her children. The law says she’s formed criminal intent (mens rea) and thus is guilty of the crime. I say the law is misguided on this point. I believe that Andrea Yates did not have mens rea.

    This doesn’t mean that I want her to get a walk. I want her to be in a psychiatric hospital, for a long time – life, if necessary. This is consistent with my belief that she wasn’t acting with criminal intent as a result of her mental illness.

    One of the other reasons why juries in Texas so seldom acquit based on mental defect is that they are not instructed as to what happens to the defendant if they reach this verdict. Jurors usually believe that the defendant gets off if they find her not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect. This isn’t the case, and in many cases jurors have said that if they knew this, they would have voted differently.

    I’ll say it again – I believe Andrea Yates did what she did as a result of illness, not evil. Evil is a choice, illness is not. Were she not ill, she would not have killed her children. I believe sick people should be in a hospital.

  4. Ginger says:

    There’s a gag in here about the legal equivalence between mental illness and civil disobedience, but I’m not inclined to actually write it.

    William Wayne Justice is a smart and humane man, which is one of the reasons why so many people down here hate his guts. He’s dead right on this issue; the way Texas treats medically insane people is just, well, crazy. The fact that juries don’t know what happen to people declared not guilty by reason of insanity is flat-out wrong and unjust. (And don’t get me started on the problems with the MHMRA; one of my father-in-law’s close friends is involved with the hospital in Rusk, and everything I hear from that quarter just upsets me.)

    People like Andrea Yates need to be confined, but they need drugs and treatment in addition to their confinement. There’s a world of difference between sympathy for her illness, especially the sort of sympathy that leads to treating her rather than executing her, and condoning her actions, which are repulsive to any decent human being.

  5. Raquel says:

    I would like to say that I have bipolar disorder and a 10yr old son and I would never kill anyone. This woman is not only crazy she needs more than just medicine. She is making other people with mental illnesses look very bad. I personally think that she deserved death. Children are precious and sometimes helpless, as in this case.
    I control my Bipolar Disorder with meds and if ever I have a problem , I go straight to the doctor. Excuses is all she had. Her husband is just as responsible because he knew all along how she was.

  6. Cheryl says:

    When someone has a mental illness, not all are able to have that illness controled with medications, at all times. With the price of medications and the fact that Soceity often looks down on the mentally ill; there are a lot of mentally ill that will not take their medications, for fear of being different; not realizing that they are different without the medications.

    When one person can cope on medication that is great, but not all people are able to do that. Yates has shown that she is not only bipolar but also PSSD which would increase the likelyhood of her not knowing what she was doing. Now that she is in the Mental hospital I feel that she will get the medications that she needs to help her stablize.

    How can you punish someone that is not in their right mind when they do a crime. They were someone else when the crime was committed. After they are stabilized on medications and counceling they are another person, everything they did when they were off medication they did as another being.

    As for condeming her husband for what happened, I can only ask would you really believe that your husband could actually do that to your children or could he think it of you? There is no one that would believe that a person in their life, is capable of committing a crime as horrific as this was.

    I pray that each and every person that has a mental illness will be able to get the help they need, since not all are able to see they need the help.

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