Man Without Qualities

Sunday, March 24, 2002

Update: The Criminal Law and Married Couples

The ongoing confused but agitated efforts to hold Russell Yates responsible for his wife's murderous acts are well exhibited in a recent Newsweek article. Showing its especially creepy side, Newsweek refers to Mr. Yates throughout the article by the faux-affectionate name "Rusty," even as the magazine implicitly lobbies for his arrest and indictment, suggests that he was responsible for the murder of his children, and generally favors the utter destruction of everything that is left of his life. Perhaps I missed it, but I don't detect the slightest hint of human warmth or understanding for a man whose wife murdered their children, a man who has nevertheless stood by her with near superhuman compassion. The article makes one wonder if it is now a prerequisite for employment by Newsweek that a reporter have spent substantial time as a child pulling the wings off flies and the like.

The Newsweek article recounts, for example, that Andrea’s brother, Brian Kennedy, says he often tried to convince "Rusty" that Andrea’s illness was severe: “He just never accepted it,” Newsweek quotes Kennedy as saying. Newsweek and Kennedy don't seem to understand or care that the significant issue is not whether Mr. Yates had a responsibility to save his wife from mental illness - the issue is whether Mr. Yates had sufficient knowledge that his children were in danger from his wife to have had an obligation to save them from her. Mr. Kennedy is not reported to have concluded that his sister might kill or harm her children. Even with the lush benefits of hindsight, Mr. Kennedy is not reported to have warned Mr. Yates that his children were in danger from Andrea. If Andrea's own brother didn't make the connection between his sister's illness and her threat to the children, why would anyone want to hold Mr. Yates to such expertise? And if Mr. Kennedy did actually make the connection of mental illness to physical threat that "Rusty" never saw, should the Texas authorities be considering criminal child endangerment charges against Mr. Kennedy for not doing anything to save the children? Are the lives of children hostage to a legalistic rule holding a father to have a special "obligation" to protect them that an uncle does not have? Why?

Lots of people are "seriously mentally ill" at some point or many points in their lives. Mere serious mental illness does not imply that the ill person is a "serious physical threat to herself or others" - which is generally the legal standard for involuntary civil commitment or treatment. One wonders if Newsweek and Mr. Kennedy have ever thought about why many streets are populated by large numbers of obviously seriously mentally ill "homeless people." That the Texas authorities have not moved against Mr. Yates suggests that at least they have some understanding of the relationship of mental illness to the modern legal world.

The same apparently cannot be said of forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz, a prosecution witness against Ms. Yates who graced Newsweek with his professional observation that several things Mr. Yates’ did, including "exposing [Andrea] to Michael Woroniecki’s cult teachings about Satan, were all major contributors to her mental illness." Dr. Dietz's suggestion that Mr. Yates should not have "exposed" his wife to religious teachings troubling to Dr. Dietz has an antique quaintness to it. What if women - at least the "mentally ill" variety - all over the country are tuning into dangerous televangelists or summoning up such demons on the web? Are the networks and web providers morally, criminally and civilly liable for "resulting" maternal child abuse? One wonders if Dr. Dietz will next be found apprising Newsweek that a husband "contributes seriously" to his wife’s mental illness unless he makes his own determination of whether his wife is "mentally ill" and, if the husband thinks so, he then has an obligation to prevent "exposure" of the female to the teachings of, say, Hillary Clinton or the National Organization of Women. Perhaps Hillary's often-expressed concern for children would lead her to agree that when their welfare is at stake one can't be too careful in considering what might "contribute" to setting off a wife considered by her husband to be "mentally ill."

Dr. Deitz also expressed to Newsweek that Mr. Yates additionally "seriously contributed" to his wife's mental illness by his "insistence that his wife home-school their children and that they live in a cramped bus for a while, and his limiting her contact with friends." Home schooling? Andrea and Russell Yates together decided that Andrea would home-school their children. Mr. Yates "insistence" would have meant nothing if Andrea had said she wouldn't do it. Dr. Dietz's characterization of Mr. Yates' unilateral "insistence" is wrong unless Andrea Yates is considered to have had no will or power. Further, the Yates’ preference that their children be home schooled was likely in the best interests of the children. Home schooled children test and perform far better, routinely and on average, than public school students do. Dr. Dietz and Newsweek seem to think that Mr. Yates had an obligation not to "insist" on the best education for his children if it burdened his wife. Further, the medium and long term burdens of home schooling on Andrea may have been expected to be less than those created by exposing the children to degraded public schools, since it is understood across the political spectrum that American public schools often fail to educate and instead foster behavior that lies at the root of much crime, poverty, personal despair and family disruption. Dr. Dietz's (and Newsweek’s') view on home schooling seems more political, meddling and generally ill informed and out of line than it seems professional. Newsweek says Dr. Dietz was a "star" prosecution witness. If so, Andrea’s lawyers should certainly be clipping this edition of Newsweek for evidence supporting the appeal of her conviction.

It will apparently also come as a surprise to the good doctor that the vast majority of the billions of people in the world today live in very cramped conditions - and do not become murderously insane. Dr. Dietz might try a visit to some of the tiny Mexican homes - often housing very large and decidedly sane, warm and wonderful Mexican families - starting just a few feet from the California border. Or perhaps he should spend some time lingering in the museums in Ireland, which accurately preserve the tiny 19th century, children-teeming huts that once covered that island. Moreover, the Yates family simply did not "live in a cramped bus" at the time of the killings - so how strong does Dr. Dietz take this factor to be?

Mr. Yates did not keep Andrea in irons and she had no obligation to abide by any effort on her husband's part "limiting her contact with friends." Nor have there been any reports that he threatened her with violence or otherwise if she spent time with her friends, in person or otherwise. Mr. Yates can only be viewed as controlling Andrea's access to friends if she is first reduced to a mere shadow for the purposes of the analysis. Not so long ago, many people did view wives in this way. Some traditionalists and feminists still do - albeit on differing grounds.

Despite all this, the generally desperately unfortunate Russell Yates is fortunate in at least one respect. If this murder trial had occurred in 1952 instead of 2002, thoughts like those underlying the comments of Dr. Dietz, Newsweek and Andrea Yates' family would have been vastly stronger and more pervasive. A husband was then simply and almost irrefutably presumed to control his wife - the confused ruminations of Dr. Dietz, Brian Kennedy and Newsweek are mostly lingering modern afterglow of that once dominant mindset - opportunistically commingled with the "victimology" branch of modern feminism. Through such processes, an earlier criminal justice system would likely have found a way to identify Russell as the main responsible party in the murder of his children, while reducing his wife to some form of accomplice bereft of will and substance - rather like the image of her conjured in Dr. Dietz's rant. Yes, it is likely that arguments as tenuous as those offered by Dr. Dietz, Mr. Kennedy and Newsweek would have been more than enough at one time to doom Russell Yates. For good or ill, even a few years ago such arguments would have carried much more power than they do now. Russell Yates shares this benefit of modern justice with Mr. Noel - who was recently spared a murder conviction similar to the one just conferred on his wife for a killing which the foreman of the jury declared each spouse had fully equal responsibility.

Comments: Post a Comment