GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Andrea Yates should be committed, not convicted of murder, for the deaths of her five children, according to University of Florida Levin College of Law Professor Christopher Slobogin. Yates will be retried June 26, five years and six days after she drowned her five children in the family bathtub. The Houston homemaker’s 2002 murder conviction was overturned, and she is again pleading not guilty by reason of insanity.
“It was a travesty that Yates was convicted the first time,” said Slobogin, whose new book, “Minding Justice,” argues that Yates is the kind of defendant who should be excused, as opposed to John Hinckley, who tried to kill President Ronald Reagan to impress actress Jodie Foster. “Yates was obviously mentally ill. The nature of her delusions, the specific reasons she had for killing her children, were clearly exculpatory. She felt the only way she could prevent her kids from going to hell was to kill them. She should be committed to a mental hospital for treatment.”
The Yates retrial is expected to again focus attention on laws aimed at the mentally ill, a subject reviewed at length in Slobogin’s new book, which analyzes the Yates case and other high profile cases, including those of Hinckley and Theodore Kaczynski (also known as the Unabomber). The book was published in March by Harvard University Press, and its subtitle, “Laws That Deprive People with Mental Disability of Life and Liberty,” alludes to current mental health law, which Slobogin describes as a “legal backwater.” Oxford University Press will publish his second book on the subject, “Proving the Unprovable,” this fall. The book will address how to prove the culpability or dangerousness of these types of defendants.
“There is always tension in these cases between the urge to punish and the impulse to be sympathetic,” said Slobogin. He said Hinckley’s trial heightened the American public’s hostility toward the use of the insanity defense.
“The fear is that the floodgates will open,” said Slobogin, who noted that the mental health community officially recognizes more than 300 disorders, and that the public fears that any one of them could be used in a criminal defense. Even so, he said, the insanity defense is asserted in fewer than one out of 100 felony cases, and fails three times out of four. In 70 to 90 percent of insanity acquittals, the prosecution has also admitted the defendant is insane.
Slobogin is Stephen C. O’Connell Professor of Law and an affiliate professor of psychiatry at the University of Florida. His scholarship in the areas of search and seizure, mental health law, and juvenile law has now been referenced in more than 1,000 law review articles and close to 100 judicial decisions. He was cited last year in the dissent in Roper v. Simmons, the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the juvenile death penalty and co-authored an amicus brief in the case. He also has chaired a number of committees for the American Bar Association dealing with crime, the death penalty and mental illness and the law.
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