Jewish World Review March 15, 2002 / 2 Nisan, 5762

Thomas Sowell

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The Andrea Yates verdict | The only good thing about the Andrea Yates case is that the jury was obviously not influenced by the months of propaganda for her by radical feminists, while the judge's gag order kept the prosecution from telling the public the other side of the story. This is a case that should have been settled in court, not on talk shows.

We can only hope that the strident propaganda by feminist zealots, for whom apparently all women are innocent of all things, did not cause a jury backlash. This woman and her children both deserved the best judgment that human beings are capable of. This was a tough case, made no easier by shrinks who claim to know what she was thinking at a time when they were nowhere near her.

The question whether Andrea Yates knew that what she did was wrong seems a lot tougher than it looked on the surface. She clearly knew that neither her husband nor the law would condone what she was about to do. But, if she killed her children because she thought it was better for them to be drowned than to suffer from Satan for all eternity, then clearly she did not herself believe that what she did was wrong.

That was not her decision to make and she could have no such certainty as such a terrible crime would require for justification. But if her previous history of irrational behavior means anything, then there can be at least a reasonable doubt as to her state of mind when she carried out the killings.

This is not the old argument that anybody who commits murder must be mentally ill. Some people commit murder and all sorts of other evils while in full possession of their faculties. Too many among the intelligentsia, and those influenced by them, simply cannot face the fact of deliberate evil, and take the easy way out by automatically saying that all murderers are ill.

It is not what anyone imagines was in Andrea Yates' mind when she killed her children that carries weight. It is what was on her psychiatric record before that terrible event which makes it hard to see her get the death penalty. Nor can we second-guess her husband, as if he were supposed to be omniscient before the event, just because we have 20/20 hindsight now.

Human beings are never going to be infallible, whether spouses, jurors or anyone else. If only Andrea Yates had realized that she was not infallible about the Satanic fate of her children, they would still be alive today.

There are plenty of criminals for whom the death penalty is the right penalty. Whether it is the right penalty for Andrea Yates is a much harder call. If she is spared capital punishment, it should not be because she is a woman and not because the death penalty is too much for those who confuse squeamishness with higher morality.

The record of her previous irrationality could raise a reasonable doubt as to whether she acted rationally when she drowned her children. But reasonable doubt is the standard that applies when deciding guilt, and the jury has already made that decision. At the penalty phase, it is no longer just a question about Andrea Yates, but also a question about other potential Andrea Yateses out there who need a loud and clear message that you are not to make such terrible decisions as she did.

A death penalty would say that what the law says is wrong matters a lot more than what you personally think is wrong. There has already been too much bending of the law to allow for individuals' personal notions or cultural habits. There is no point having law if everyone is going to be his own Supreme Court.

No matter whether the death penalty is imposed or not imposed in this case, it is a very tough call -- and those of us who were not in the courtroom when this tragic case unfolded should be grateful that we do not have the terrible weight of responsibility to make that call. Whatever decision is made by those who do have that responsibility should be respectfully considered. This is not some contest where we cheer for our side and boo the other side. This is the tragedy of the human condition for all concerned.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late.


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