New York Times


What if a madman had invaded Andrea Yates’s home in suburban Houston and drowned her 5 children?

It would have been the biggest story in America, with the coverage ranging from the sensational to the hysterical. Every angle would be pursued. Except one. There would be no serious attempt to understand the mental state of the killer — to determine, for example, if there were mitigating factors at work. Few would care if he suffered from depression or some other mental illness, or if he’d been horribly abused as a child.

And there would have been no hemming and hawing about whether prosecutors in Harris County, Tex., which is fanatical about capital punishment, would seek the death penalty. No question at all. Not in a multiple murder case in which all of the victims were children.

But this case is different. The mother herself has confessed to the killings. And she is not some unkempt, crack-smoking, dark-skinned, ghetto-dwelling stereotype who can easily be bad-mouthed for daring to have babies in the first place. She’s a soccer mom. Or at least she might have been if her kids had lived long enough to play soccer.

Suddenly the nation has a mass killer it can empathize with, identify with, care for, even love. So here’s Newsweek, in its cover story: “Most mass killers are sociopaths, utterly alienated from other human beings. They are callous or sadistic. Andrea was the opposite: if anything, she apparently cared too much.”

More Newsweek: “Between caring for her father and her children, it is hard to think that Andrea ever had time for herself.”

The tone and the approach of Newsweek’s coverage was typical. How could Andrea have done it? What could possibly have driven a nice middle-class suburban mother to drown her 5 children?

This is the case in which root causes, out of favor for so long, made a comeback. Story after story detailed the struggles Ms. Yates had with emotional illness, a demanding husband, an ailing father, the 5 children. Suddenly it was not only O.K., but important, to try to understand what drove the killer to kill.

What’s wrong with all of this? Nothing. Ms. Yates is a human being and deserves to be seen as such, even as the criminal justice system moves ahead with the procedures designed to hold her accountable for her acts.

The problem is that in most serious criminal cases capital cases, especially we seldom treat the accused as human, preferring instead to characterize them as monsters to be dispatched as quickly as possible, regardless of mitigating circumstances. They become “the other,” so alien and evil that no one can relate. And that makes them easier to kill.

Craig Haney, a psychology professor and expert on capital litigation at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said of the Yates case, “This is a white, middle-class family. And it’s a mother. So all of the sentiment and I think quite appropriately is running in the direction of trying to understand why she would do this.

“That kind of empathy, unfortunately, does not often extend to the typical capital defendant who may come from a different racial background, and almost always comes from a different class background than the jury.”

One of the many Texas cases in which the background and mental state of the defendant was not sufficiently considered was that of Mario Marquez, who was sentenced to death for the rape and murder of a teenager. Mr. Marquez had an I.Q. of about 65. He was savagely abused throughout his childhood. At times his father would tie him to a tree and beat him with a horsewhip until he passed out. His parents abandoned him to the streets when he was 12.

Mr. Marquez was too limited mentally to talk with his lawyer about the specifics of his case. They talked about animals and the things Mr. Marquez liked to draw.

Mr. Marquez was executed in 1995.

The closer you look at individual cases, the clearer it is that the government-sanctioned execution of human beings is an inappropriate, inequitable, intolerable penalty.

It was wrong to execute Mario Marquez. It would be wrong to execute Andrea Yates. And it will always be wrong to have one standard of justice for people like Mr. Marquez, and another for people like Ms. Yates.