Pleading guilty “by reason of insanity”

Published 11 Oct 2017

In a criminal trial, pleading guilty “by reason of insanity” is one possible defense by which the egregiousness of the criminal actions having been committed may indeed become mitigated, indeed, sometimes, even exonerated completely when time comes for sentencing. “Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity” (NGRI) is a defense whereby the accused argue that they are not culpable for breaking the law, as they were mentally ill or suffered from some other aberrant diminished mental capacity at the time of the crime’s commission. Common examples of what could plausibly produce diminished mental capacity within persons would include, but by no means be limited to, psychotic breaks, mental breakdowns (nervous collapse), scizophrenic psychosis, suicidal ideation, and post partum depression. Defendants may prefer to use this special defense of diminished responsibility or diminished capacity because if successful, they will not be labelled as insane. For diminished responsibiliy, sentences can range from an absolute discharge to life imprisonment.

The next type of plea involving mental status is where the defendant claims to be guilty but mentally ill-(GMI). Only persons who waive the right to a jury trial may plead guilty but mentally ill. After that, the burden of determining the guilt, innocence, and/or culpability of the defendant falls solely on the shoulders of the judge sitting on the bench. The trial judge must first examine all reports prepared pursuant to the Rules of Criminal Procedure, hold a hearing on the sole issue of the defendant’s mental status at which either party may present evidence and is satisfied that the defendant was mentally ill at the time of the plea is entered-all of this, before he may accept a plea of Guilty but Mentally Ill. If the trial judge refuses to accept a plea of guilty but mentally ill, the defendant will be able to withdraw his plea and will usually end up with a jury trial, unless he waives his right to that jury trial. If this does occur, the defendant will get a bench trial, and it would be considered a conflict of interest for the person who sat in judgment on the defendant’s mental health trial to also preside at the new bench trial, so this may not be done. A different judge would be assigned to hand down a verdict of guilt or innocence.

Perhaps the plea we will find most compelling is known as “legal insanity” To outline legal insanity, it should be said that at the time of the commission of the criminal act, the defendant was laboring under an extremely profound, pronounced defect of reason so as to create a veritable state of true, scientific disease of the mind.

Let us examine a case in which the defendant was very clearly legally insane. Although many people would attack this plea as a mere means of avoiding the death penalty for herself, we will demonstrate facts and circumstances that will lend to a very powerful argument to convince even the most ardent skeptics that Andrea Yates truly was and is legally insane.

Things started out fairly normally for Yates, she was born to parents Jutta and Andrew Emmett Kennedy. Yates was not socially withdrawn in the least-as a matter of fact, she graduated as the valedictorian of her class. She later married Rusty Yates on April 17, 1993, and the couple moved to Clear Lake, Houston. It was shortly after this move to Clear Lake that the factors that would eventually emerge as the primary source of Yates’ psychopathology became present. Andrea’s husband introduced his wife to a fundamentalist preacher with whom he had become acquainted before they married. This preacher promoted a doctrine that his followers should have ‘as many children as nature allows’, which the Yates both announced at their wedding they were going to pursue. After Andrea Yates drowned her five children in a bathtub, investigative reporter Suzy Spencer discovered letters written to Andrea by the Woroniecki family that berated her for her ‘unrighteous standing before God’. A newsletter called Perilous Times, authored by the Woronieckis in 1999, was introduced into evidence at her trials to help establish the central motivating content behind her psychotic delusions. Despite the horror of her actions, one cannot help to feel a modicum of compassion evoked for the lonely Yates who viewed herself and her children, believed them both to be destined for eternal perdition, and was having these beliefs reinforced through a hate-mongering and misguided preacher who was supposed to be representing God.

At the retrial, further evidence was presented in which the preacher, named Woronieckis, in 1996, had sent directly to the Yates family a video in which he directed condemnatory comments about their Christian lifestyle. He called them “hypocritical” I guess we could benefit from a moment of reflection here to consider the kind of damage such a man does to the Church and the name of God in today’s world. For an unstable mind, a mind suffering from several overwhelming psychiatric conditions such as post-partum depression, depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia ( a disease originally named from the Greek for “shattered mind”)-any one of which could have driven any one of us right over the edge-such statements and writings must have been crazy-making.

Dr. Melissa Ferguson, a psychiatrist at the Harris County jail, was one of the first people to begin treating Yates. Describing fragments of their initial six-day interview process, Dr. Ferguson said Yates told her “I am Satan” and exhibited paranoia and delusions. Yates told her she felt her children were “tainted and doomed” to suffer in the fires of hell because their mother was evil. Dr. Ferguson later described Yates as “one of the sickest patients she had ever seen”. Yates is now currently taking a potent psychiatric cocktail of medications, including Haldol (an anti-psychotic); Cogentin (counters the sedative effects of Haldol); and the anti-depressant medications Effexor and Wellbutrin. The defense argued compellingly that the psychopathic mother felt pressured to find an alternative way to save her children. The ‘hypocritical’ Christian life she felt accused of living would ensure her children’s fate in hell. Woroniecki stated that parents must preach full time on the streets in order to demonstrate a righteous lifestyle to their children, thus properly training them so they could be ‘saved’ Yates told her jail psychiatrist, ‘(The children) were doomed to perish in the fires of hell.

Andrea Yates had been treated for postpartum depression and psychosis since the summer of 1999. Her first psychiatrist, Dr. Eileen Starbranch, testified that she urged the couple not to have more children, as after witnessing the first bout with postpartum depression, further children would ‘guarantee future psychotic depression’. When Andrea’s problems resurfaced three months after the birth of her fifth child (and were further exacerbated by the death of her father), she came under the care of Dr. Mohammed Saeed. Following the first trial, Andrea’s family wanted Saeed charged with criminal negligence, stating that he had had improperly dosed Andrea’s medication, which resulted in the killings.


  • Shane Stevens ‘By reason of insanity’ Chicago : Chicago Review Press, 2007.
  • Randy Singer ‘By reason of insanity’ Carol Stream, Ill. : Tyndale House Publishers, 2008.
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