Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Media and Yates

I am sure if you read the news or had caught it on the radio, you will have heard about Andrea Yates. She will always be known as the mother who drowned her five children in a bathtub at home.

No doubt that Yates’ mental illness and troubled psyche predated the killings. She had a history of mental problems and was put on anti-psychotic medication, and had attempted suicide, I believe, a couple times before this incident. The murder case got a lot of press and there was even an issue that began here, it was about postpartum depression.

What you may not have known or remember hearing was that in 2002, a jury rejected Andrea Yates’ insanity defense. At that time, she had been sentenced to life in prison for the deaths of three of her five children.

But that conviction got overturned. Yes, a state of appeals court reversed that sentencing because an expert witness for the state, a psychiatrist, messed up. He testified that there was a television series called “Law and Order” that had aired an episode about a woman suffering from postpartum depression who drowned her children.

Then, when her next trial came up in Houston, Texas, (which has been called “the death penalty capital of the world”) the jury reached a new verdict. After 13 hours of deliberation over three days, the jury finally decided that Yates should be committed to a state mental facility in Texas until she is deemed to be no longer a threat.

Yates’ attorney Wendell Odom expressed the view that the correct decision had been made, he said that he believed his client was mentally ill and needed help and attention. But the Harris County District Attorney, Joe Owmby, essentially told reporters he was disappointed by the verdict. To paraphrase Mr. Ownby, he said that he’d always believed that she knew it was a sin and legally wrong to kill her children.

Now whatever you think, the television show and the media played a big part in this case. Once, in the overturned sentencing; and again with the final decision. My feelings are that she was definitely mentally ill, had many bouts with illness, and it’s a sad commentary that her husband did not do more to help his wife or intervene to save his children. But, the prosecuting attorney claimed he feels that the heavy media coverage and the editorials in the local paper must have had an effect on the jury. He wasn’t accusing them of not deliberating correctly, but said that after living with it for the past five years, that they were “human beings”. Did he mean that media changed the jurors' minds?

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