There’s a lot of noise in the media, and in the Blogosphere, about the Andrea Yates retrial here in Houston. As I am a Houstonian, and flatter myself to think that I have a reasonable grasp of the facts and the issues in this matter, I am accordingly submitting my thoughts on this case.
Let’s start with the basics. Andrea Yates killed her five kids. Deliberately, methodically, and she has admitted she knew exactly what she was doing.
That should have made the decision simple, but in the actual case it did not happen that way. Yate’s lawyers, led by George Parnham, managed to blur the facts by dwelling on the question of whether Yates specifically knew that what she was doing was wrong – and Yates, of course, had been carefully coached to convey confusion and bewilderment – in short, to make Yates another victim instead of the killer. The Prosecution, led by District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, blundered badly by admitting publicly that Yates was mentally unbalanced. This made it difficult to sell the jury on the claim that Yates was mentally ill, but well enough to know what she was doing. It was easy from that point for Parnham to walk the jury away from the cold nasty facts that Andrea had deliberately murdered her children, to whether he could make the jury feel sorry for her.
A lot of people are happy with the verdict. A lot more are furious. I am reluctant to play around with a decision which decided the course of the rest of Yate’s life. I accept that Yates loved her children, and did what she did out of a sense that she had no choice. But countless murderers, properly convicted and sentenced to harsh consequences, were in identical situations. I do not blame the jury. If we are to be honest about the shortcomings of the American Criminal Justice system, we have to acknowledge that most people try to avoid jury duty, especially difficult cases. What we end up with, is almost always a collection of people who – to recall the blunt phrase of one wag – were not smart enough to figure out a way to get out of Jury Duty. The pay for jurors is a joke, as is the cattle-like way they are treated, close to abuse in some cases, to say nothing of the way juries are manipulated by both prosecuting and defense attorneys. The cast of any significant trial, therefore, ends up being a judge with too high an opinion of him or herself, running a court room with a mistreated and unrespected jury, cajoled by teams on each side who are focused solely on the win – with little if any regard for how far they are headed from the truth of the matter.
A few closing thoughts. Russell Yates may be as innocent as he has claimed, but I have to say that I find his conduct – the lack of tears for his dead children, the quick divorce from his wife, even while he claimed to stand alongside her, and the equally quick rush to get married again – such which conveys an image that I cannot reconcile with any decent father. I also cannot help but wonder why Russell allowed conditions to become as they were when the children were killed. This bothers me quite a lot. Next, a lot of people seem to think that Andrea Yates will be safely placed in a mental hospital, most likely for the rest of her life, while in actual fact she will, as a direct result of this verdict, be released immediately upon the agreement of a psychiatrist and a judge that she is “healthy”. Bearing in mind that her psychiatrist thought she was safe to be near her kids when she murdered them, this point is hardly reassuring. In fact, once she is released there is nothing in the law to prevent Yates from having more children – even though the basis of her post-partum depression includes the medical diagnosis that any further childbirths would be increasingly likely to recreate the conditions which led to the murder of those children. And George Parnham never once considered Yates’ children as anything other than markers in a game he was playing to win the case. Not once did he suggest that Yates should bear responsibility or face consequences for what she did. Looking sorry in court was the whole for him. I cannot imagine what kind of callous heart and ice-cold soul would play such games with the lives and memory of innocent children, or how Parnham can reconcile his own guilt in this case.
Andrea Yates murdered five children. It says something terrible about our society that we can so easily ignore that fact.