Andrea Yates may have been spared from spending the rest of her life in a Texas prison because her five-year legal struggle helped reshape public opinion about mental illness and the insanity defense, says USA Today. George Parnham, her lead defense attorney, called the verdict “a watershed moment in the treatment of mental illness.” Acquittals by reason of insanity remain rare. “In some ways, this case is an argument for the further away you get from an event, the more people are able to rationally approach it,” says Rusty Hardin, a former Houston prosecutor now in private practice. “The whole moral issue that this case represents has seeped into the public consciousness.
In 2001, Yates waited for her husband to leave for work, rounded up her five children and drowned them, one by one, and then tucked them into bed. A jury in an earlier trial found her guilty but rejected the prosecutors’ request that she be executed. After the new verdict was announced, the jury foreman said some jurors wanted to find Yates both guilty and insane. The jury deliberated over two days before reaching a verdict. Ron Honberg of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, says, “As a general rule, people found not guilty by reason of insanity end up being removed from society for as long or longer than people convicted of similar crimes.”