Guilty and Insane?

I have not come across anyone who is not ambivalent about the jury decision that found Andrea Yates not guilty by reason of insanity. No need to go over the horrific details of this case. We all have heard of how she methodically and brutally murdered her five children.

The problem is that we have also heard the clear evidence of her mental disorder. She had been diagnosed with major depression, post-partum psychosis, and schizophrenia. This was a deeply troubled woman.

But does “deeply troubled” mean not guilty and worthy of punishment? Many commentators have noted that Yates waited for her husband to leave for work before killing the children. How else can we interpret that other than as a sign that she understood she was doing something wrong? The capacity to understand the moral nature of one’s actions, the ability to know right from wrong, is the key requirement for criminal culpability. Yates’s deviousness indicates that she did. One need not be a professor of moral philosophy to be worthy of punishment. There are many levels of guilt and responsibility. It can be argued that Herman Goering was not as evil a man as Heinrich Himmler, but both deserved the sentence they received.

Some may object that making these distinctions is largely a legal technicality; that Andrea Yates will be locked up anyway, in an institution for the criminally insane. John Hinckley Jr., the man who shot Ronald Reagan, was also found not guilty by reason of insanity, and he has been behind bars since the shooting. But there is no guarantee that prison psychiatrists will treat Yates as they have Hinckley. They may come to the conclusion that she has been cured of her mental disorder. At which point she will be released. And that could happen in five or ten years. Not likely, but who knows? If you have been judged insane there is no reason to hold you beyond the time it takes to treat your disorder. There is no punishment required for actions for which you were judged not responsible in the eyes of the law.

Quite a dilemma: We do not want a woman who brutally murdered her own children back on the streets just a few years after the killings, yet logic requires that we not punish those found by a jury to be not responsible for their actions. Syndicated columnist Mona Charen suggests that we can find a way out of this dilemma by creating a new legal category: “guilty but insane.” Implicit in this suggestion is that we redefine “insanity” in such a way as to leave open the possibility for a jury to conclude that individuals afflicted with severe mental problems may be responsible enough for their actions to deserve punishment.

A similar line of thinking could be found in a July 30th op-ed column in the New York Times by Morris B. Hoffman, a state trial judge in Denver and a fellow at the Gruter Institute for Law and Behavioral Research, and Stephen J. Morse, a professor of law and psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania. They understand the box we find ourselves in because of the impact on our legal system of what they call “various materialistic and deterministic” schools of thought that “attribute people’s actions not to their own intentions, but rather to powerful and predictable forces over which they have no control,” such as “their poverty, their addictions or, ultimately, their neurons.”

We are on the verge, they continue, of “expand[ing] the definition of excusing conditions to include all criminals. That is, if paranoid schizophrenia can provide part of the basis to excuse some criminal acts, why not bipolar disorder, or being angry, or having a bad day, or just being a jerk? After all, a large number of factors over which we have no rational control cause each of us to be the way we are.”

Moreover, if we are going to maintain that psychic scars and childhood experiences absolve us for our actions, the criminals that most of us want to throw the book at, the worst of the worst, should be among the first to get the “not guilty by reason of insanity” judgment. There have not been many childhoods worse than Charles Manson’s. We have heard the accounts of what Hitler and Saddam Hussein went through as young men. Pretty bad stuff, all kinds of anti-social influences. Does any of it make them not responsible for their actions? What about the hulking drug addict in the alley, staring at you as you make your way to the train station? I bet he went through hell as a teenager. Does that mean he should be given leniency if he bashes in your head to get the money for another hit of crack cocaine?

Morse and Hoffman sum up with a line that could have been lifted from C.S. Lewis: “Punishing the deserving wrongdoers among us — those who intentionally violate the criminal law and are cognitively unimpaired — takes people seriously as moral agents and lies at the heart of what being civilized is all about.” We must keep in mind, they argue, that “the nature of criminal responsibility is moral, not scientific.”

“Moral, not scientific”: This is another way of saying that we should not pretend that we are God. We have no way of knowing to what degree human beings are fully responsible for their actions. God knows things about the state of even Charles Manson’s and Adolph Hitler’s souls that we do not. Thomas Aquinas used the term “invincible ignorance” to describe those who commit objectively immoral actions without grasping the evil of their ways fully enough to be guilty of sin. I would run for the door if someone assigned me the task of making the case that Hitler and Manson are in that category, but it is not impossible. We just don’t know.

So why pretend that we do know by employing these broad definitions of the criminally insane? We understand that there are individuals incapable of moral judgments. No need to get graphic here. We all know what psychiatric wards look like. But for over a century now the category of criminally insane has been extended far beyond the residents of the psychiatric ward. It is time to bring it back, if not all the way, close. I don’t know if Mona Charen’s “guilty but insane” category is the way to do that, but it points us in the right direction. Some way has to be found for us to be humble enough to admit that we cannot read into the depths of an accused criminal’s soul, while at the same time holding firm to the conviction that his or her behavior is worthy of punishment.

Would that mean that we will create a situation in which individuals not guilty of sin in God’s eyes, will be punished severely in our legal system? No doubt. But one cannot help but think that God will not look with displeasure upon juries and judges acting in good faith who impose such sentences. The category of invincible ignorance applies as much to them as to those accused of a crime.

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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