This is the loophole that both side tried to exploit during both the initial trial and the re-trial.
No one questions the claim that Yates was mentally ill, either before or during the events that took place. However, in the trial, the decision and weight of prosecution's case lied in the ideal that she had some semblance of knowledge that what she was about to do was wrong. Her mental illness undoubtedly had an effect on how she perceived her actions. She felt that ending her children's lives early would save them from eternal damnation (Dix, 2005).
Two key facts led to the decision in the first trial that she "knew" what she was doing, and that it was "wrong." The first is that she took precautions against being interrupted until she had completed the task. She locked the family dog in the cage when the dog raised protests to her actions (Dix, 2005). This demonstrated some form of mental presence and "purpose" to her actions. The second is that she notified authorities immediately after the acts and asked for a police officer instead of an ambulance (Dix, 2005). This was interpreted by the prosecution as an indication that she was aware that what she had done was "wrong." These are the key elements that led to her conviction in the first trial. Even if her sense of knowing that what she was doing was wrong, she was still aware of at least some moral and criminal consequences of her actions. In the second trial, the definition of "know" and "wrong" were once again skewed, leading to the second verdict.
Analysis and Conclusion
This case brings into light the importance of making certain that juries understand the definitions of the terms used in the case. In this case, it appears that in Texas insanity has two different definitions. One of these definitions stems from a clinical state of mind. Insanity also has a legal connotation, which sometimes conflicts with the clinical use of the term. It is easy to call a person insane when they have a history of hallucinations, psychosis and other critical factors that would lead a clinician to determine that the person is "outside" of normal parameters and in need of intervention. However, when this person commits a criminal act, the legal definitions become involved and the issue becomes clouded.
Due to Texas policy on providing juries with the necessary definitions, it is clear that the jury members used two different standards to decide the outcome of this case. In the first case, the legal definition of insanity weighed more heavily. In the second case, the clinical definition of insanity took precedence. This is clearly an area of the law that needs to be clarified. When insanity involves such heinous acts, as performed by Andrea Yates, and it becomes apparent, that criminal law has become involved. There needs to be a standard that invokes the legal definition of insanity over the criminal one. This clarification would help juries to decide insanity cases on a more consistent basis, as definitions would be clarified.
There is a thin line between and "illness" and a "crime." The case of Andrea Yates brought the complexities of this line into focus. No one will argue the Andrea Yates was at least delusional when she committed the acts. No one will deny her history of mental illness and psychosis, but does that make it an excuse? After examining the facts of the case and delving into the definitions pertinent to the case, one has to conclude that although mental illness clouds one's perceptions, it does not give one the right to take another's life.
Had Andrea Yates not demonstrated a presence of mind, at least twice as she committed the acts, my opinion might be different. For instance, if she had provable amnesia or at least a history of amnesia in the past and did not remember committing the acts then one might give her some credit in the insanity defense. However, both her history and the presence of mind that she demonstrated as she committed the acts shows no loss of consciousness. She knew what she was doing, and she knew that it had legal and moral implications.
Dix, G. (2005). Dix: Texas needs to change how it defines insanity. University of Texas School of Law. November 18, 2005 Austin American-Statesman. Retrieved September 14, 2007 at http://www.utexas.edu/law/news/2005/111805_dix.html.