Saturday, January 08, 2005

A Tale of Two Mothers

Among the overload of news stories the last couple of weeks, two caught my attention because of the contrasts.

Story #1: The tsunami that hit Phuket, Thailand, forced Jillian Searle to make a choice no mother should ever have to make: which son to hold on to in raging flood waters, and which to let go and hope he survived.

Searle, of Perth, Western Australia, was near her Phuket hotel pool with sons Lachie, 5, and Blake, 2, when the tsunami hit last Sunday. "I knew I had to let go of one of them and I just thought I'd better let go of the one that's the oldest,'' she said. "A lady grabbed hold of him for a moment but she had to let him go because she was going under. And I was screaming, trying to find him, and we thought he was dead.''

Lachie was found safe two hours later after surviving the raging waters by clinging to a hotel room door.

Story #2: A Texas appeals court has overturned Andrea Yates' capital murder conviction for drowning her children in 2001. She was sentenced to life in prison, but the appeals judge has ruled the case included erroneous testimony by a witness to the prosecution. The ruling was in response to testimony by psychiatrist Park Dietz who referred to an episode of "Law & Order" that did not exist.

These two stories attracted my attention because of choices. Searle had to choose which child she had to let die so that the other could live. Yates had to choose which of her children to kill first.

On the face of it, overturning Yates' conviction because of a TV show looks ridiculous. She did it, doesn't deny that she did it, the entire world knows she did it. Guilty, guilty, guilty.

But the American judicial system is funny -- when it works right, it even protects those that are guilty. It doesn't protect them from punishment; it ensures that they get a fair chance to present their arguments, and to defend themselves vigorously.

In the Yates case, Dietz claimed that an episode of "Law and Order" told the story of a woman who drowned her children in the bathtub and got away with it by pleading insanity. Andrea Yates was an avid watcher of that show; ipso facto, she got the idea of how to get away with murdering her own children. The jury heard this, and the prosecution referred to it in its argument.

The only problem is, such an episode never aired. Dietz was wrong. And Andrea Yates did not get a fair trial.

The overturned conviction will be appealed all the way up the judicial ladder, so Yates may not go free, as many people fear. Then again, she might.

Most people cry out for justice for the five dead children. (Some think the father is just as culpable as she is, but he's not the one that held their heads under water.)

The justice system becomes stronger when it's applied appropriately and fairly. Old-time lynchings and kangaroo courts tested the mettle of the US system, but it survives. Every accused American, including Andrea Yates, should have his or her day in court.

Having said all that, Andrea Yates should never see the light of day again. Our culture has become a little too tolerant of the murder of children for my tastes. Let Andrea Yates have her day in court, but she did kill her children. If she's sick, then treat her, but treat her behind bars.

God forbid that she should ever come face to face with Jillian Searle in free air.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful post. This andrea yates thing has been driving me crazy the last few days. I'm one of those who reacts with rage when I hear about what she did, and perhaps it is because I'm male, but I just have a hard time believing that post-partum depression (which I've witnessed among my own family) could create a state-of-mind that would excuse this act. Anyway, yours was a terrific post.

Anonymous said...

great job wordkyle.....scorp

Anonymous said...

My idea for andrea yates is a bit like taking care of a rabid dog - I think she ought to have her head cut off and sent to a lab, just like the animal that she is. "Innocent by reason of insanity" is the major travesty of the American judicial system. Great post!