Time to Stop the Madness

In this March 21, 2002 file photo provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Andrea Yates is seen in Gatesville, Texas.
AP/Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice
Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals confirmed Wednesday what we already knew about the monumentally sad murder trial of Andrea Yates, the Houston mother who drowned all five of her children, one by one, in the bathtub of their home in June 2001.

Yates conviction was tainted, the appeals court reiterated, by the false testimony of a hired-gun expert witness for the prosecution who helped convince tough-on-crime jurors that Yates' actions that awful day were premeditated and thus criminal. In a justice system known sometimes less for its reason and more for its passions the ruling by the panel is as righteous as it is fair.

Anyone who sat through even a portion of Yates' trial in the late winter of 2002 knows that the evidence clearly established that she was severely mentally ill when she killed her kids; that she was delusional, that she was on the wrong medication at the time and that many people close to her let her down on many different levels. Anyone who listened to the testimony of the witnesses knows that if we are to have an insanity defense under the law it ought to have been applied to someone like Yates.

Now that they have failed to defend on appeal what amounts to an unconstitutional trial Texas prosecutors have to decide whether to retry Yates or try to work out a deal with her lawyers that would end the litigation once and for all. This should not be a difficult choice. Every relevant factor a prosecutor typically would look at in deciding whether or not to bring a case to trial weighs in favor of a deal here. It's time to stop the madness. Time to stop trying to force the health-care case of Andrea Yates into the prism of the criminal justice system.

CBSNews.com legal analyst Andrew Cohen discusses the latest developments in the Yates case.

Yates' family never wanted a first trial and almost certainly won't want a second one. As the putative surviving victim, Russell Yates, the defendant's former husband, certainly won't be pushing to put his ex-wife back in court. He is not entirely blameless in this story, of course, and no doubt wants to put it behind him as much as is humanly possible as he charts a course toward a new life. Every family member who has spoken on the public record seems to agree that the killings were a tragedy, perhaps an avoidable one, but not worthy of a push to send Yates off to prison for the rest of her life. Prosecutors must listen to their pleas.

Yates' prosecutors also have to look at the public interest that would be served by re-trying Yates. Will the "interests of justice" -- whatever that means -- be served if Yates is tried again? Does anyone seriously believe that Yates will have "gotten away with it" if she is not prosecuted again? I don't think so. Especially after her first trial, when the breadth and depth of her illness became clear, I have not sensed a great public clamor to send Yates away to prison as opposed to sending her to a mental health facility. In fact, I sense the opposite.

If there was something positive to come out of the killings, it was that the Yates' trial educated a great many people about the horrible effects of post-partum depression and its related illnesses. That education should not have faded during the intervening four years. I suspect that more people than before perceive Andrea Yates herself as a victim -- not as someone who deserves to spend the rest of her life in complete freedom but not as someone who deserves to spend the rest of her life in the Texas penal system, either.