by Jim Trageser
American Reporter Correspondent
February 28, 2002
KILLING ANDREA YATES WILL ONLY COMPOUND A TRAGEDY
ESCONDIDO, Calif. -- If there is any one word that can come close to describing the Yates family tragedy playing itself out in a Texas courtroom this week it might be this: Sadness.
How else to describe a mother who kills her five children at home then turns herself in?
This is not a well woman, as testimony in her murder case is making clear. Nor could one make much of an argument that she poses a danger to society as a whole.
Yet there are those -- including the prosecutor in the case -- whoare arguing that Andrea Yates should face the death penalty for her crimes. Which seems nothing less than ludicrous.
While I am opposed to the death penalty, it's more of an intellectual position than visceral. I don't believe one ever has the right to take away something you can't give back if you're later proven wrong -- and so I don't think we ought to execute people, no mattertheir crimes.
Yet, as James Carville pointed out about himself in his book, "Stickin'," I didn't lose much sleep over Ted Bundy being put down like a rabid dog. Nor did I agonize over Timothy McVeigh or Robert Alton Harris, the San Diego man who shot two teen-age boys and then ate their hamburgers as he left them dying in a field.
And if the neighbor charged with the murder of Danielle van Damhere in San Diego County is found guilty and executed, I don't think I'll feel the world has lost much there, either.
So my opposition to capital punishment is hardly rock-solid; as aparent of two kids in the same age range as the Yates children, I might be expected to want some revenge -- or at least to look the other way while itsextracted, as I have in the above examples.
Yet my gut feeling is that Andrea Yates is sick and in need of help, not the hangman. She's not sick the way the killer of young Danielle is -- whomever did that made a conscious decision to violate and then kill a child. But unlike that killer, I do not believe that Yates made any decision; I think she was pushed beyond what she could take and quite simply snapped. Which doesn't justify her killing her five children -- nothing could. It does, I think, make her case different -- different enough that the death penalty shouldn't even be a discussion.
By all accounts, Andrea Yates loved her children. This wasn't an abusive parent who whipped or burned or neglected her children. According to testimony so far, Yates explained her actions by saying she was trying to doing what was best for the kids -- that she felt they would only suffer in the future.
Was she right? Of course not, but looking at her explanation is a reasonable manner of determining her state of mind -- which does not seem well.
Some want to talk of justice, of avenging the lives of her children. Retribution is it? Is that what we want? But what could be worse than living with the knowledge ofwhat she did?
The question of whether she should spend the rest of her days in a prison or a mental hospital is equally absurd. For whatever her physical surroundings, Yates is already imprisoned in a very sad reality, one whose bars will never open, one which she can never escape.
There are parents who kill their children from anger, stupidity or callousness, parents who hold no love for their own flesh and blood, who torture and torment and ultimately murder their kids. Such parents richly deserve whatever punishment is meted out to them.
But Andrea Yates isn't among them. She's one of us -- a parent who loved her children, adored them, cared for them. The only difference between her and us is that she wasn't able to cope with what life brought her, and nobody listened to her repeated requests for help.
If Andrea Yates is guilty of murder, then so are all those who heard her cries and didn't come to her aid, all those who mock the argument that it takes a village to raise a child, all those who cling still to the frontier mentality of facing life alone.
If someone had helped her, listened to her -- and she did ask for help, did let those around her know she was overwhelmed and unable to cope alone -- those children would be alive today.
Andrea Yates was abandoned by her family, her friends and her community -- and her children paid the price.
And so it comes down to this: If we are going to find Andrea Yates sane and hold her to be truly responsible for the murders, we can do so only if we first accept our own culpability in accepting a society that allows a mother's cries for help to go unheeded.
If we take Andrea Yates' life, her blood will only add to the stains on our hands left by the deaths of her children.
Jim Trageser is a prize-winning writer and editor living in Escondido, Calif. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.