Hard Cases Make Strained Commentary - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Hard Cases Make Strained Commentary

The Yates case, which ended last week, got a lot of ink. Unfortunately, much of that ink was used to print breathless commentaries trying to Make Sense of It All. For the left, Andrea Yates was a symbol of the put-upon American woman, hardly responsible for snapping when the world stretched her. To those on the right, she was a symbol of the left’s apostasy — a sort of poster-girl for late, late term abortion.

The commentary ball really got rolling last July when Anna Quindlen wrote her regrettable “You Try Raising Five Kids and Not Killing At Least One of Them” Newsweek column. Titled “Playing God On No Sleep,” the column read like a satire of privileged Boomer narcissism. Of course, though, Ms. Quindlen was serious. Sympathizing with Ms. Yates, she wrote:

“I’m imagining myself with five children under the age of 7, all alone after Dad goes off to work. And they’re bouncing off the walls in that way little boys do, except for the baby, who needs to be fed. And fed. And fed again. And changed. The milk gets spilled. The phone rings. Mommy, can I have juice? Mommy, can I have lunch? Mommy, can I go out back? Mommy, can I come in?”

Conservatives, of course, pointed out that most people try not to even cry over spilled milk, let alone drown five children on account of it. For once, most of America seemed to listen to conservatives’ common sense, and after the backlash against the Quindlen-type apologists, little was heard of the case until last week when the trial wound down and sentencing quickly followed.

On Thursday, after conviction but before sentencing, Richard Cohen weighed in on the Washington Post op-ed page with a rather ridiculous canine metaphor:

“The terms of right and wrong simply do not apply… For the defense, I now call Duke Cohen. He was my dog, beloved and sorely missed to this day — so smart I used to joke that he could touch-type. In the state of Texas, he would be considered as knowing right from wrong. I used to come home and sometimes catch him asleep on the couch. That was forbidden. Wrong. He knew it. He would hang his head and retreat to the kitchen. ‘Bad dog,’ I would say, and he would look so stricken it could break your heart.… Did he know right from wrong? Yes and no. He knew what I didn’t like. But he lacked morality.… Yates knew what the authorities would not like. But she was psychotic.”

One can imagine that the feminists who have been defending Yates must be elated with this comparison. She’s just a crazy bitch!

Charles Krauthammer also weighed in on Friday of last week, making an argument similar to Cohen’s, if better argued:

“Andrea Yates was clearly mentally deranged, not as proved by the murders — that would make the murders self-acquitting — but as demonstrated by her noncriminal behavior: self-injury, severe withdrawal, bizarre behavior, occasional catatonia, delusion, hallucinations.… Andrea Yates’ mental illness is now masked by Haldol she should have been taking at the time of the murders. I find it hard to see how she can be deemed by society to be truly responsible for her crime… This is not a matter of sympathy. I have infinitely more sympathy for the five innocents who died so terribly. This is a matter of justice. Guilt presupposes free will. Did Andrea Yates really have it?”

Of course, many conservatives are significantly uneasy about the idea of cutting Yates any slack whatsoever. Thus, Thomas Sowell wrote on Friday:

“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.… 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 in having law if everyone is going to be his own Supreme Court.”

What all of these passages show is how hard a time the pundit class has analyzing a tough case when they feel a disproportionate amount rests on its outcome. The case seems rather clear that Yates was psychotic at the time of the murders, but because conservatives are so tired of hearing excuses made for criminals they could barely bring themselves to accept even plain facts for fear of ceding ground in an important debate. At the same time, even a Yates sympathizer (even a feminist Yates sympathizer) would have had to feel uneasy had the jury handed down a verdict of not guilty.

The insanity defense is already problematic for our society to accept — no one wants to end up in a logical circle where we declare that anyone who murders must be insane, and therefore all murderers are not guilty by reason of insanity. But there are certainly some criminals who are simply not culpable for their actions due to serious mental illness. And the more we learn about mental illness, the more difficult some cases may become. Time was Andrea Yates would have been hanged with little thought; today we ask legitimate and important questions about her moral agency.

Perhaps a first step (one suggested by Dennis Miller among others) is that we change the language to allow our moral sense to more closely align with our rational judgments. Instead of not guilty by reason of insanity, perhaps we need to try guilty by reason of insanity. Chances are it would have been the only accurate judgment of Andrea Yates.

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