CrimProf Blog

Editor: Kevin Cole
Univ. of San Diego School of Law

Monday, November 21, 2005

Texas CrimProf Advocates a More Precise Insanity Defense Standard, Looking at the Andrea Yates Case

DixCrimProf George Dix of Texas Law at Austin advocates a clarification in Texas law's insanity defense by examining the Andrea Yates case, the case in which Yates, a Texas mother, will be retried for the drowning deaths of her five children. He views the Yates case as a prime example of the legislature's need to define insanity as the mental state in which the defendant could not "appreciate" that his/her actions were "morally wrong" or "legally wrong."  Currently, Texas law, like many other states' laws, requires the defendant claiming insanity to prove to a jury that, at the time of the crime, he/she did not "know" that the conduct was "wrong."  But unlike many other states' laws, Texas law does not define "know" or "wrong" to guide juries as they deliberate.  Dix believes defining "know" and "wrong" is essential for just outcomes in cases involving the insanity defense.

From a Texas Law press release: "No one questions that Yates was seriously mentally ill when she drowned her children in the bathtub of her Houston-area home...The jury in Yates' first trial, however, undoubtedly concluded that she understood in some limited sense that authorities would regard her actions as legally wrong. She took precautions against being interrupted as she carried out her plan. She notified authorities when she completed it. Did she know what she did was wrong? This depends on how one defines "know" and "wrong." Yet we demanded that Yates' jury resolve her case without guiding them on what the law means by these critical terms...

The insanity defense should identify those people who have done terrible things but under such a misunderstanding of the surrounding circumstances that they were not morally to blame for having done so...If Yates were to be retried under the Texas standard as it should be amended, the instructions given to jurors would focus their attention on the real — although difficult — issue: Did Yates, as result of her serious mental illness, have such a distorted perception of the meaning of her conduct that she did not meaningfully appreciate that it was morally wrong?" [Mark Godsey]

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