Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBSNews.com.
A Texas mother kills her children, calmly dials 911 to report the deed and then says that God told her to do it. It happened near Houston in June 2001 with Andrea Yates and it seems to have happened again near Tyler with Deanna Lajune Laney.
There are startling similarities between these sad stories and there also are important differences. But neither the similarities nor the differences fully explain how this could have happened again or whether what happened to Yates in the criminal justice system is likely to happen to Laney.
Yates drowned her five children, one by one, in the bathtub of their home. She called her husband and told him to come home from work and then called police dispatchers and told them to come over. When the first officer arrived, Yates told him what she had done. She later said that she had killed the children in order to save them from the devil; that they had to be killed while they were young and innocent so that they would go to heaven instead of hell.
Laney, meanwhile, is accused of killing her two oldest children, one by one, by taking them out into the yard of their home and beating them with rocks. The Laneys' youngest son also was beaten and hangs on to life in critical condition. According to the police, Laney then called dispatchers and told them to come over because she had just killed her children. Like Yates, Laney reportedly said that God commanded her to kill. While Yates had been almost coy during her 911 call, police say that Laney offered detailed information during hers. And while Yates had called her husband, Russell, just after the drownings, Laney apparently was content to allow her husband, Keith, to sleep through what now surely will become his worst night on Earth.
Like Yates, Laney was described as an "intensely devout woman." Unlike Yates, however, Laney apparently was more involved in a "typical" relationship with her religion. For example, Laney sang in a gospel group, according to news reports. Yates, remember, subscribed at the time of her killings to a particularly florid, Manichean form of religion. But both women home-schooled their children – a factor that doctors in the Yates trial focused on as one of a few that pushed her into madness. If we ever see a Laney capital murder trial – if there is no plea deal for a life sentence – look for home-schooling to play a role in any insanity defense offered by her attorneys.
Yates was visibly, obviously sick for weeks after she killed her children, even after she was back on her strong anti-psychotic medication. In interviews conducted by both state doctors and her own defense psychiatrists, you could see her weaving in and out of catatonia and dementia. So far, early on in her ordeal, Laney has been described by her jailors in a similar fashion. "She's sometimes incoherent, sometimes lays in a fetal position, sometimes walks around her cell singing gospel music," Sheriff J.B. Smith told the Dallas Morning News. "Sometimes she prays. Sometimes she seems to realize what she's done and says 'Oh, no.!'"
But whereas Yates had a long and documented history of severe mental illness before she took action against her kids, there appears to be no such history with Laney. Although the investigation is in its early stages, there are no indications that Laney was on medication or had any prior bouts of severe mental illness, depression or specifically, as was the case with Yates, post-partum depression. Yates' long, undisputed history of illness did not help her at trial; she still was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Laney's apparent lack of such a history could cut either way.
Prosecutors are likely to point to this lack of a medical history to argue that Laney was not severely mentally ill when, in their view, she committed this premeditated and unworldly crime. Laney's lawyers, meanwhile, are likely to argue that since there was no advance warning of such acts the defendant truly became and was insane this past weekend. It hurt Yates at her trial that she had filled that bathtub up with water one time before – prosecutors say it was proof of a plan, a design, premeditation. If there is no evidence whatsoever that Laney had ever considered or discussed this tragic result, perhaps the defense will be able to convince a judge and jury that Laney was, indeed, severely mentally ill the day before Mother's Day 2003.
But that will only get the defense so far. In Texas, in order to prove an insanity defense, you have to not just prove severe mental illness you also have to show that the defendant did not know that his or her conduct was wrong. During the Yates' trial, prosecutors used her 911 call to vitiate this defense. If she didn't think what she had done was wrong, Yates' prosecutors told jurors to great effect, then why did she promptly call the police? That's precisely what Laney's prosecutors are likely to say, too; that however medically unstable she may have been Saturday morning she still knew right from wrong; she still knew enough that with the bodies of her dead children in the front yard it was time to call in the law.
And then what? I don't know. I suppose Laney's doctors and lawyers try to convince judge and jury that the calm, specific and precise way in which the defendant allegedly steered the police out to her Smith County, Texas, home a few days ago is proof itself of legal insanity; that no one who had just done what Laney is accused of doing could have been so rational about it immediately after. I mean, even Yates herself couldn't bring herself to utter the words, "I killed my children" over the telephone during her 911 call. But Laney apparently did, just before she reportedly said, "I had to," after the police arrived at the scene.
This will probably be a trial defense by Laney's attorneys that is designed as much to save her life as it is to gain an acquittal. I think Yates was convicted so quickly – it took jurors less than four hours after weeks of intricate testimony – because jurors in the end looked no further than to her 911 call; her own words. If Laney's jury does the same, the guilt-innocence phase of her trial probably will end just as quickly. And then the question will be whether Laney's prosecutors and jurors have as much sympathy for her during a sentencing phase as Yates' prosecutors and jurors had for her. It's possible, I suppose, but I wouldn't bet on it.
Copyright 2003 CBS. All rights reserved.