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Tale Of Two Killer Moms

Note: A woman who claimed God ordered her to kill her three sons was acquitted Saturday of all charges by reason of insanity. A Texas jury found that Deanna Laney was legally insane when she killed her sons, ages 2, 6 and 8.

It's not that Deanna Laney and Andrea Yates will lead significantly different lives over the next few decades. Both women, both of whom killed their own children in the name of God, will be confined under maximum-security conditions. Both will be given some measure of psychiatric treatment and no small amount of medicine. Both ought to hope that they never become sane enough to truly understand what they have done to their families.

Both women were wonderful mothers up until the moment they turned on their kids. Both women called 911-dispatch afterward. Each woman used a particularly heinous method of murder-Yates drowned her kids, Laney clubbed them to death with a rock. Both women were evaluated by some of the best medical minds in the country who concluded that they were both severely mentally ill at the time of the killings. The defenses offered at trial were similar; so were the prosecution strategies.

But there is a discordant feeling about the fate of the two Texas mothers. Yates will spend the rest of her days in a Texas prison because she was convicted of murder by a Houston jury in 2002. Laney likely will spend the rest of her days at a state hospital because, on Saturday, a Tyler jury acquitted her of murder by reason of insanity. Laney is more mentally ill than Yates, Texas says, legally insane as opposed to just plain insane.

It's always a little dangerous to compare two different trials, two different defendants, and two different juries. The Laney jury isn't responsible, of course, for the Yates' verdict and the Yates' jurors had no say in the Laney verdict. But it's always worth exploring how a justice system can generate such a disparate result from two cases that present such similar facts. What explains this?

There are two primary reasons why Laney was acquitted and Yates was convicted. First, there were far fewer conflicts in the medical testimony in the Laney trial than there was in the Yates case. In the Laney case, no fewer than five doctors testified that the 39-year-old former mother of three (one child survived her attack) was so severely ill that she did not comprehend at the time that killing her boys was wrong. In the Yates case, two experts offered similar opinions about the defendant but those conclusions were offset by the testimony of a prosecution psychiatrist who concluded that Yates, indeed, could have distinguished right from wrong the day she downed her kids.

The doctor commissioned by Laney's trial judge told jurors that the defendant met the requirements for legal insanity in Texas. And even the prosecution's doctor did as well. In the Yates case, the judge herself never ordered an (presumably more neutral) examination of the defendant. So, theoretically, the Laney jurors would have had to have ignored all of the medical testimony in the case in order to convict the defendant of murder. They didn't.

But this only partially explains why the Laney trial ended so differently than the Yates' trial did. After all, there was plenty of evidence in the Yates' case that would have supported a jury finding that she was legally insane. Yates' jury was told about her prior psychotic episodes; told about the fact that her doctor took her off her medicine just prior to the killings; told about how there were no viable motives for the killing other than Yates' belief that it was God's will. Why didn't the Yates' jury also recognize that no sane mother could ever do that to her children?

The answer may be found in the second significant difference between the two cases. In both trials, prosecutors urged jurors to consider the defendants 911 calls as proof of their guilty minds. If they were truly insane, this argument goes, if they truly didn't know right from wrong, they wouldn't have felt the need to call 911 to report their deeds. It makes perfect sense and is an argument prosecutors frequently use in cases like this. In the Yates' case, it worked. In the Laney case, it did not. Why?

When Yates called 911 on the morning of June 20, 2001, she could not say aloud the words she would need to describe her deed. All Yates could say is that she needed the police to come to her house. "I need a police officer," she said, over and over again, and it wasn't until Houston's finest got to her front door that she declared that she had killed her children. Yates' voice was calm, almost eerie, as it was when she later confessed to the killings.

Laney, by contrast, was perfectly clear about why she called 911 last May 9th. "What's your emergency?" she was immediately asked by the 911 dispatcher. "Yes, I just killed my boys," Laney replied. "Ma'am, did what?" asked the obviously incredulous dispatcher. "I just killed my boys," Laney said in a voice her attorneys described at trial as "empty of emotion." The Laney jurors asked to hear the 911 recording just prior to reaching their verdict. The Yates jurors made a similar request just prior to reaching their verdict. Does that mean anything?

To me, it means that Laney's 911-straightforwardness was the common-sense push her jury needed to find her legally insane while Yates' 911-hesitation was real-world proof to her jury that she really did comprehend how horribly she had just behaved. In other words, there was some hint of guilt in the way Yates could not tell the dispatcher what she had just done that simply did not exist with Laney when she made her 911 call. Never mind that Yates would remain severely ill for days and weeks and months after the killings and after getting on the right medication. There was something "sane" about when she made that call.

So two very ill women have been given justice. It is not equal justice. It is not fair justice. It isn't even sensible justice. But there is rarely any sense in these awful cases anyway. As one of Laney's attorney put it, and as Yates' already knows: "I think that now and for the rest of her life, the punishment and torment that's going on in her own head is more significant and more damaging to her than anything the criminal justice system could have done, other than death."

By Andrew Cohen