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The travesty of mercy to Andrea Yates

By Gennady Stolyarov II
web posted August 7, 2006

When a wild or domesticated animal loses control over itself, enters a rage, and kills or maims a human or another animal, that act is sufficient for the animal to be rightly put to death. The animal has shown irrefutably that it cannot exist in a civilized setting; it cannot behave without aggressing on individual humans' lives and property. The animal is not given any second chances; it is not "rehabilitated," and no one entertains the delusion that just because the animal killed or injured someone already, it will not kill or injure anyone again.

Yet when a human being loses control over herself, enters a "depression," and systematically drowns her own five children, she is not only not put to death to prevent such further uncontrolled outbreaks -- she is not even locked away in prison to suffer for her vile and murderous acts. Instead, she is absolved of any guilt in the brutal murder and put in a mental hospital, where she receives food, lodging, and medical care at taxpayers' expense. This -- in its stark essence -- is what the "not guilty by reason of insanity" verdict given to child murderess Andrea Yates means.

Andrea Yates and her attorney George Parnham listen as the verdict is read in her murder retrial in Houston
Andrea Yates and her attorney George Parnham listen as the verdict is read in her murder retrial in Houston

The bizarre argument underlying this verdict is that because Yates allegedly did not have control over her own thoughts, emotions, and actions during the murders, she can be absolved from guilt and punishment for those murders. It is questionable that Yates committed the murders without knowing their full implications and wanton evil. However, even if we accept that premise, it follows that her punishment should only be greater than it would have been otherwise.

Every human being has the inalienable moral responsibility to honor the rights of other human beings. That is, every human being must not infringe on other human beings' lives, liberty, and property. This responsibility is the fundamental imperative underlying all civilized human interaction; without it, rights could not be honored and would remain in perpetual jeopardy. Furthermore, because individual rights are eternal and inalienable, the responsibility to honor individual rights is likewise eternal and inalienable. It does not depend on the internal or external condition of the individual in question.

Honoring individual rights is easy; a person in a vegetative state can manage it perfectly. Such a person will not kill other people, injure them, restrain their freedom, or steal their possessions. Violations of individual rights are always active; they require an individual to move her body in some way as to deprive another of life, liberty, or property. The responsibility to honor individual rights is in essence a responsibility not to act in certain ways.

The human being not only has responsibility over her actions; she has responsibility for being responsible over her actions. If an individual suffers from "mental problems" that prevent this control, she inhibits her ability to lead a life proper to a human being -- to the extent that these problems are present. If these deficiencies harm only the individual and no one else, then the individual still maintains her essential humanity -- for she still has enough self-control to fully respect the rights of others. However, if an individual with "mental problems" harms other people, she should be punished to the extent that she violates their rights. Their rights are sacred and immutable -- as is her responsibility to honor them. Any time she forfeits that responsibility, she also forfeits the higher standard of treatment pertaining to human beings.

With lesser violations of rights -- especially those where the harm can be compensated for by fines or other reparations -- the offending party need not be permanently restrained, because the damage can be undone. However, where the damage is permanent, the punishment for the damager should be permanent as well. Two categories of rights infringement meet this criterion: murder and permanent injury.

If we, as civilized, moral people, are concerned with attaining a society where individual rights are honored and enforced, we should implement measures to punish infringers so as to prevent further violations. The deterrent effect provided by permanent punishment will discourage many would-be violators from ever resorting to crime. Even animals are subject to the effect of deterrence; a hungry wolf will not attack a flock of sheep if the shepherd aims a gun at the predator. "Mentally troubled" humans are far more intelligent than the animals -- so their ability to understand and be affected by deterrence should be even greater.

If the deterrent effect fails in a given situation and the permanently damaging crime is committed nonetheless, permanent punishment for the criminal will minimize future crime by ensuring that the offending person never violates another person's rights again. Thus, the principle of permanent punishment for permanent violations of rights leads to a worst-case scenario of one criminal incident per violator and a best-case scenario of none due to the deterrent effect.

Mercy and help offered to those who could not restrain their active violations of others' rights constitute a bizarre attack on the civilized imperative of honoring all individual rights. Mercy to those who killed "in cold blood" -- though still unwarranted -- makes more sense. The "cold-blooded" killer who knew what he was doing might be evil, but he still has control over his mind and body -- his ideas and his actions. There exists an extremely slim chance that he might be "reformed" during the course of his imprisonment and upon release pose no further danger to individuals' rights. Such a chance should typically not even be considered, but extreme cases are conceivable where it might be more significant than usual -- as in the case of Raskolnikov in Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.

But keeping a "mentally troubled" murderess from permanent punishment is like letting a rabid dog who has bitten and killed five children remain on the loose or even residing comfortably in a veterinary facility. There is no guarantee that this woman will not kill again -- unknowingly, unpredictably, unwarrantedly, and uncontrollably. No civilized, rational methods are available to assure her future safety to others.

Andrea Yates's drowning of her own five children -- an act abhorrent to natural law, moral conscience, and civilization itself -- clearly demonstrated her as being worse than a rabid beast. The rabid beast enters an occasional wild and indiscriminate rage, but Yates -- being human -- could still kill systematically, though ostensibly without recognition of the implications and consequences of such an act. Yates, a human, is far more capable of inflicting harm than a mere animal. If we rightly put violent, murderous animals to death -- though the animals, too, do not recognize the consequences and implications of their actions -- then it is even more fitting that Yates be terminated as soon as possible. Permanently imprisoning Andrea Yates was the least the court could have done to prevent further violations of rights on her part. Alas, even that act was rejected by those who would use mercy to perpetuate savagery.

G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to Enter Stage Right, Le Quebecois Libre, Rebirth of Reason, and the Ludwig von Mises Institute, Senior Writer for The Liberal Institute, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine championing the principles of reason, rights, and progress. His newest science fiction novel is Eden against the Colossus. His latest non-fiction treatise is A Rational Cosmology . Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at gennadystolyarovii@yahoo.com.


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