Are You There Alone? The Unspeakable Crime of Andrea Yates.
Suzanne O'Malley Simon & Schuster www.simonsays.com 281 pp., $25
When someone with mental illness is accused of a crime and swept into the criminal justice system, he or she is like a square peg forced into a round hole.
One foundation of our criminal justice system is culpability--that is, except for a few strict liability crimes, such as statutory rape, guilt necessarily involves intent to commit the crime. Another foundation of our system is that everyone is entitled to the effective assistance of counsel at all critical stages in court proceedings. However, in order to receive counsel's assistance, the accused must be able to assist his or her attorney. People with mental illness often are unable to meet one or both requirements. They were either not sane at the time of the alleged offense or they are not competent to assist in their own defense.
The plight of mentally ill criminal defendants is further exacerbated by narrow legal definitions of insanity. Only a fraction of insanity defenses raised are successful. To make matters worse, treatment for convicted mentally ill offenders is shamefully limited.
Suzanne O'Malley, in Are You There Alone? The Unspeakable Crime of Andrea Yates, exposes much of what is wrong with our criminal justice system's handling of mentally ill defendants. Yates, who had a long history of mental illness, drowned her five young children in their home in Houston in 2001. A jury convicted her of the murders, but instead of the death penalty, it recommended life imprisonment.
The Yates case also shows what is best about our criminal justice system--that jurors want to do the right thing and that they take their responsibilities seriously. As one Yates juror said after the verdict, "There's no doubt in anyone's mind she was mentally ill, but that wasn't the question asked us. Did she know right from wrong? That was the only thing we talked about in deliberation."
Given the intense media coverage of this case and the narrow definition of insanity, it might have been easier for Yates to crawl through the eye of a needle than to wangle a generous-but-quiet plea bargain and fade into an institution for a few years.
I recommend this book, although it is not the easy read I thought it would be. O'Malley covered Yates's trial as a reporter. But she does not maintain a journalist's objectivity in her book. Rather, she veers toward sympathizing with Yates. This does not compromise the book, but it shows her zeal in trying to present the complex background issues: Yates's treatment for chemical dependency when she clearly needed mental health treatment, or her and her husband's belief in the teachings of a religious leader with a cultlike hold over them.
Seemingly verbatim transcripts of trial testimony bog down the middle of the book, but the author excels when she goes beyond the testimony and details reported during the trial. For example, she describes how, after the verdict, she posed as a patient to the last psychologist who treated Yates, in order to better understand the assembly-line practice of mental health care. She also interviewed other professionals to learn how they would have treated Yates's illness and to gauge how she might have fared in another jurisdiction.
Are You There Alone? is full of wonderful inside details, such as that when Yates was sentenced, not a single family member was in the courtroom. Instead, they had all hit the talk show circuit--even her husband, who had flown to New York for interviews with Larry King and Katie Couric. The book also reveals that Couric, to her credit (or perhaps to the credit of her lobbying skills), contacted Yates's husband shortly after the murders to say, "Let me know if I can do anything." He took her up on the otter and asked her to find Yates an attorney, which she did.
O'Malley performed her due diligence, and beyond. She interviewed scores of people who knew Andrea and Rusty Yates. She conducted multiple interviews with key players such as Michael Woroniecki, the religious leader who had such a profound influence on Andrea. She tells of the difficulty of interviewing Rusty Yates in a public place because he was so well recognized.
She continues to visit Yates in prison and correspond with her--some of their letters are reproduced in the book. O'Malley juxtaposes a visiting-room scene in which Rusty is holding Andrea, who asks him just to take her home, with a scene of Rusty's brother ripping out the bathtub in which Andrea drowned the five children. These are enduring images, and they separate Are You There Alone? from other true-crime books.
After interest in the Yates case faded, as did the public's initial desire to blame Rusty for the seemingly gross insensitivity of repeatedly impregnating a wife who suffered from postpartum depression, I spoke with many people, particularly women. They said in hushed tones that they empathized with Andrea, or that they feared they would be blind to any signals emitted by friends or relatives who were as vulnerable as she was.
Are You There Alone? shows the stark reality of what can happen to a mentally ill person who commits a crime and for whom everything--from diagnosis through conviction--goes wrong. If any good can come from the deaths of Noah, John, Paul, Luke, and Mary Yates, and their mother's conviction, it is to accomplish two goals: First, to put greater resources into mental health care, and second, to better accommodate mentally ill offenders in our criminal justice system. Doing so will not compromise our system, but rather will help prevent tragedies like the Andrea Yates case.
ELIZABETH KELLEY is a criminal defense lawyer in Cleveland.