On July 26 a Houston jury found Andrea Yates not guilty of murder, by reason of insanity, in the 2001 drowning of her five children. Yates will likely spend the rest of her life in a state mental institution.

The two Yates trials were political trials whose aim was to support the criminalization of the mentally ill and terrorize their families. It has to be considered in the context of the right-wing assault on mental health care.

Her second trial was a result of an appeal of her highly publicized first trial over four years ago. Defense attorneys presented a strong case that she was clearly psychotic when she drowned her children. Professionals testified that she had various hallucinations, and believed that she was Satan and that killing her children would prompt the Bush government to execute her. She believed that the only way to save the children from Hell was to kill them. She and her husband had been involved in a fanatical, fundamentalist Christian church which, no doubt, exacerbated and validated her psychotic delusions.

The Republican-controlled Harris County District Attorney’s Office sought the death penalty for Yates in the first trial. She was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Later, it was disclosed that the prosecution’s psychiatric testimony was based on erroneous assertions.

In the two trials, prosecutors spent $350,000 of taxpayer money to pay for two “hired gun” psychiatrists. Their testimonies were so convoluted and illogical that as I read them in the newspaper, I wondered who was insane. The defense attorneys produced a large number of mental health professionals who all testified that Mrs. Yates was indeed insane. These professionals were not paid for their testimony and had meaningful contact with Yates.

Fortunately, the jury in the second trial could see through the testimony of the hired guns and were persuaded, instead, by the testimonies of unpaid professionals.

After it was all over, I asked myself the question, “Why did the District Attorney’s Office spend $1.5 million of the taxpayers’ money to try this case when Texas is slashing funds for education and health care for children?” The Harris County District Attorney is right-wing Republican Chuck Rosenthal. The trial was conducted in the courtroom of Judge Belinda Hill, who was appointed by George W. Bush in 1997. The prosecutors pressed hard to punish Yates.

During George Bush’s presidency, mental health treatment funding has been slashed. Health care in general has suffered tremendous losses. Medicaid and VA funding cuts and attempts to privatize Medicaid and Medicare have broken the health care system. In Houston, these cuts in mental health care funding have resulted in the closing of many outstanding psychiatric hospitals, including Spring Shadows Glen, one of the hospitals where Yates was treated successfully. In fact, this hospital had closed before she drowned her children and she was admitted, instead, to another hospital where she was released prematurely with inadequate medication and little outpatient monitoring. The hospital where she had been successfully treated was not available to her at the time she drowned her children.

Bush set the stage before all this happened. Early in his presidency he appointed John Walters as “drug czar.” Walters was notorious for his testimony before the U.S. Senate before Bush came to power, in which he emphatically stated that there was too much treatment and too little incarceration of drug offenders. He also maintained that liberals were conspiring to develop a “therapeutic state.”

President Bush has followed through with this line of thinking. Prisons are growing rapidly and dramatically, and treatment facilities are disappearing. One example of this is the closing of the venerable Charity Hospital in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina devastated the area. Charity Hospital had provided health care to poor and working-class people for many years. Bush has also advocated strongly for “faith based” health care, which can be more easily manipulated to serve the interests of big business than scientific, public health care.

Thanks to the jurors in the second Yates trial, the right wing’s vicious plan was handed a resounding defeat. People recognize that some severely mentally ill people, particularly when inadequately treated, are capable of performing horrendous acts. However, that does not make them criminals, but sick people who need appropriate care. This means that the public should demand the restoration and improvement of our health care system. Further, we should demand a national health care system available to all. If such a program had been in place, it is possible that Mrs. Yates could have been stopped before she committed her awful acts.

Paul Hill (phill2@houston.rr.com) is a mental health worker in Houston.

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