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Wrightsman's Psychology and the Legal System 9th Edition

Wrightsman's Psychology and the Legal System (9th Edition)

Book Edition9th Edition
Author(s)Greene, Heilbrun
The Scope of Forensic Psychology
The Insanity Defense
Chapter 10, The Scope of Forensic Psychology, CRITICAL THOUGHT QUESTION, Exercise 01
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The Case of Andrea Yates: Tragedy and Insanity


On the morning of June 20, 2001, Andrea Yates, a 37-year-old wife and mother of five, said goodbye to her husband as he left for work. Before her mother-in-law arrived to help care for the children, who ranged in age from six months to seven years old, Yates filled the bathtub of her Texas home with water. Beginning with her middle son, Paul, she drowned each of her children in turn. She laid the four youngest children on the bed, covering them with a sheet. Her oldest boy was left floating lifelessly in the bathtub. She then called the police and her husband to tell them what she had done.


Prior to the killing of her children, Yates had a long history of severe mental illness. She reportedly suffered numerous psychotic episodes and had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and postpartum depression. These episodes resulted in several hospitalizations, including one  just a month prior to the killings, and required psychotropic medications to help stabilize her ("The Andrea Yates Case," 2005).


Yates pled not guilty by reason of insanity to drowning three of her children; she was not charged in the other two deaths. Her insanity plea was based on her claim that she had no choice but to kill them while they were still innocents, to prevent them from burning in hell (Wordsworth, 2005). No one disputed that Yates systematically killed each of her children, but the question remained: Was she so disturbed by the symptoms of her severe mental illness that she could not be held criminally responsible for the murders?


At the conclusion of her trial, Yates was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. After she had served three years of her sentence, however, the court declared a mistrial and Yates's conviction was overturned. During the trial, one of the psychiatric experts testified that the television show "Law and Order" had aired an episode in which a defendant had been acquitted by reason of insanity after drowning her children in the bathtub. Although the expert himself did not link this observation to Ms. Yates's thinking or motivation, the prosecutor did so in closing arguments. In fact, there had never been an episode of "Law and Order" with this specific story line. Yates was subsequently found not guilty by reason of insanity in a retrial, and is now hospitalized in the Texas state forensic hospital system.




Why would it make a difference in the jury's consideration of the insanity defense for Andrea Yates if "Law and Order" had shown an episode in which an individual had drowned her children in a bathtub—and Ms. Yates had viewed this episode?

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