Equal Justice, Unequal Results

Judge Belinda Hill looks on from the bench in this artist's drawing on the sixth day of the murder case against Andrea Yates Monday, Feb. 25, 2002, in Houston. Yates' defense team contends she is innocent by reason of insanity of the June 20 drowning of her five young children. In the foreground are prosecutors Joe Owmby, left, Kaylynn Williford, center, and Andrea Yates.
Andrea Yates drowned her children in the bathtub of their home and will spend the rest of her life in a Texas prison. Bridget Stovall drowned her children in the bathtub of their home and will spend the foreseeable future in an Ohio mental hospital.

A Houston jury in March rejected Yates' claim that she was legally insane at the time of the killings. A three-judge panel in Cincinnati Monday accepted Stovall's claim that she was legally insane at the time of the killings.

When it comes to the insanity defense, Texas law and Ohio law are remarkably similar and equally tough. In Texas, it is not enough for a judge or jury to believe that a defendant had a severe mental illness — there also has to be a finding that the defendant was unable to know the difference between right and wrong. In Ohio, a judge or jury must believe that a defendant suffered from a mental disease or defect that precluded her from appreciating the "wrongfulness" of her actions.

In both states, then, it is very difficult, and purposely so, for a defendant to prevail with an insanity plea in a capital murder case.

So what happened? Why did jurors spend less than a full afternoon deliberating Yates' insanity plea before rejecting it while Stovall's judges spent less than a day concluding that she was insane?

Both women were good mothers until the awful last moments of their children's' lives. Both women suffered from severe mental illness. Both women thought their children were possessed by the Devil. Both mothers became obsessed with religious symbols. Both mothers, from comments made during and after their court appearances, still don't quite seem to comprehend what they did.

Don't blame harsh Texas justice. Or the race card. Don't blame bleeding heart judges in Cincinnati or ignorant, insensitive jurors in Houston. Don't blame quack psychiatry or incompetent counsel. This isn't a story about unequal protection under the law. There were important factual differences in the stories the two women offered. There also were important differences in the way the defense teams for each woman approached their respective cases. The stories of Yates and Stovall prove as well as any others that the law doesn't promise equal results.

In Yates' case, for example, prosecutors were able to convince jurors that the defendant knew what she had just done was wrong by pointing to a 911 call Yates made shortly after she drowned her five children. On the chilling tape, Yates never told the dispatcher why she wanted the police to come to her home. She just said over and over again that they had better come. Her tone was flat, laconic — a sign, her medical experts said, that she was even then suffering from severe psychosis. But it didn't matter. Her jurors clearly believed that Yates would never have called the cops had she not thought she had done wrong.

Stovall, on the other hand, never called the police after she drowned her two children in April 2001. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, the police had to break down the door to her apartment. When police entered, Stovall reportedly said "you all did this." Yates, meanwhile, had told the first officer on the scene at her house in June 2001: "I just killed my kids." Clearly, Stovall gave prosecutors much less to work with when it came to establishing that she knew right from wrong at the time of the killings.

It also helped Stovall that a court-appointed psychiatrist who examined her a few months ago told her judges that she would likely never regain her sanity. No such neutral psychiatrist ever was able or willing to say that about Andrea Yates although her defense was supported by compelling medical testimony about her history of severe mental illness. Finally, Yates rolled the dice and brought her cause before a jury. In retrospect, given how unsympathetic her jurors were, that was a bad choice. Stovall, meanwhile, waived her right to a jury trial and permitted three seasoned judges to determine her fate. The Ohio judges gave more deference to medical conclusions than Yates' Houston jury did.

Would Yates' have gotten a better deal had she waived her right to a jury trial? We will never know, although it seems unlikely. It is fair to say that Yates' trial judge, Belinda Hill, showed absolutely no inclination during the trial to give the defendant any sort of break. In fact, a few of Hill's particularly harsh rulings represent about the only chance Yates has on appeal of getting around her life sentence.

The lesson of Yates and Stovall is that of two different women who did essentially the same horrible thing for basically the same twisted reason under virtually the same legal standard who will have very different futures. It's a lesson as basic to the criminal justice system as any other.

By Andrew Cohen