Dispatches from the Creation Wars

God and Madness in Texas

A reader sent me a link to this blog post about two cases where mothers killed their children, both in Texas, and both convicted by juries. But one mother said that she did it because God told her to and therefore it wasn’t wrong; the other said she did it because Satan told her to, but she knew that God would be angry at her for it. The same psychiatrist testified in both trials, but said that the first mother was insane, while the second one was sane:

The similarities between the cases were striking. Laney and Yates, now both 41, were deeply religious, stay-at-home moms when they killed their children. After interviewing them, Dietz found each woman to be mentally ill, psychotic and delusional, according to transcripts from both trials.

However, in Laney’s case, Dietz testified she was insane because she had thought attacking her kids was the right thing to do. The jury agreed with Dietz’s analysis and acquitted her by reason of insanity. She now is in a mental hospital.

A key difference in the Yates and Laney cases: Laney told Dietz she attacked her sons at God’s direction. Dietz testified he took that as a sign she didn’t know right from wrong. “I think it’s understood that the ultimate test that God could ask of someone is to kill your own child,” Dietz testified at the Laney trial. “The Bible has information on that very point.”


This is what I don’t get. If Dietz really thinks that God tells people to kill their children as a test, like the bible says of Abraham, then shouldn’t he be defending Dietz as being sane because it could be true? In fact, shouldn’t he be defending her as doing God’s will? His reasoning for this is just bizarre:

Michael Perlin, a professor at New York Law School who specializes in mental disability law, said societal values about good and evil should not be factors in determining whether a defendant is sane.

“It shouldn’t make any difference where the voices come from, whether God or Satan or a pop star or Napoleon,” Perlin said. “If you’re responding to voices, that suggests a lack of a grasp on reality. They’re responding to an extra-worldly command in a delusional state.”

Dietz disagrees. “Under Texas law, if a mentally ill person commits a murder in response to command hallucinations from God, they would surely be insane,” he said. “If they did it at the direction of the chief of police, they are arguably insane. If they believed it at the direction of a gang leader, at the direction of Napoleon, at the direction of Satan, they are not insane. Gang leaders, Napoleon and Satan do not have moral authority in Texas.

I think Dietz may be insane. Or just hopelessly irrational.

Comments

  1. #1 atari24
    July 6, 2006

    I don’t know much of anything about the courts(except for what I’ve learned from this site), but could this be grounds for an appeal in case of the Satanic-voiced mother? Isn’t this also the government giving religious preference to one person’s delusions over another?

  2. #2 Ginger Yellow
    July 6, 2006

    I think Dietz is just cynical – the people who murder at the direction of God or the chief of police are “insane”, ie shouldn’t be fried, because they’re the good kind of murderous nutball. The people who follow gang leaders, Napoleon and Satan are “sane” and therefore should fry, because they’re the wrong kind of murderous nutball.

  3. #3 Jim Ramsey
    July 6, 2006

    I know this is a fine point, but God told Abraham to “sacrifice” his son not “murder” him. Also, there’s the not so fine point that God let Abraham off the hook at the last moment. God also made it clear at that point that human sacrifice was not a good thing.

    Maybe Dietz needs to bone up on his Old Testament before he starts using it as an excuse.

  4. #4 Chance
    July 6, 2006

    I know this is a fine point, but God told Abraham to “sacrifice” his son not “murder” him. Also, there’s the not so fine point that God let Abraham off the hook at the last moment. God also made it clear at that point that human sacrifice was not a good thing

    This is just silliness. It is not a fine point, the son would have been murdered the reason for which matters not. I’m sure the son’s perspective would have been ‘Hey, my Dad is about to kill me because he hears freaking voices in his head. Somebody hit him with a rock!’

    And to say God left them off the hook at the last moment is just callous. Just because he didn’t do it doesn’t mean that if he had it wouldn’t have been murder.

    Maybe Dietz needs to bone up on his Old Testament before he starts using it as an excuse.

    Maybe his understanding is a good as anybodys. Here is a novel idea, why bone up on it at all? Or reduce it’s cultural significance? Oh that won’t happen as to many people drill it into their 2 year olds heads.

  5. #5 sixteenwords
    July 6, 2006

    Park Dietz found Jeff Dahmer to be sane.

    As I watched that travesty unfold in my town I was certain he was at the very minimum cynical enough to be insane under most definitions.

  6. #6 natural cynic
    July 6, 2006

    One can get confused by the theology of this situation. How can Dietz differentiate between God and Satan when Satan is a well known user of scripture in making his arguments. If any voices are directing actions and overriding a moral sensibility, then this is strong evidence that the case should be in the insane category.

    BTW, the case of Abe & Isaac could be a lot more complicated. In one Pharisaic tradition Isaac is not a boy, but is a young man and is fully cognizant of his position while Abraham is very reluctant and has to be convinced by Isaac to go through with it. Isaac is willing to be sacrificed for the good of the people – which gives a background for some of the theology behind Jesus’ crucifixion.

  7. #7 Diogenes
    July 6, 2006

    Keep in mind that the legal definition of insane (for usage in the Insanity Defense) is different than clinical insanity. Just being insane doesn’t get you off the hook, you have to be in such an altered state that you cannot tell that the actions you are commiting are wrong.

    Of course Dietz has a really weird way of trying to determine that. Who the voice in your head is doesn’t seem to really matter at all. Yates (if I’m remembering the case correctly) was likely found to be legally sane because she made up a story about her children being kidnapped. If she believed she had done nothing wrong she would have no reason to hide the fact that she killed her children. Actions to cover up a crime are pretty strong evidence that you understand what you did was wrong.

    The Laney case i’m not familiar with, but it looks like there were 4 seperate psychiatrists that found her legally insane. Any particularly warped opinions by Dietz don’t change the other 3 peoples opinions.

  8. #8 kehrsam
    July 6, 2006

    I haven’t checked what standard Texas uses for an insanity defense. If, like most of the country, they use M’Naughten, this poses a two-part test:

    “… the jurors ought to be told in all cases that every man is presumed to be sane, and to possess a sufficient degree of reason to be responsible for his crimes, until the contrary be proved to their satisfaction; and that to establish a defence on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or, if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.”

    Presumably the God defense comes under the second branch. Both mothers knew what they were doing; they just thought it was the right thing to do. The argument from authority that Dietz makes is just non-sensical,and completely irrelevant to M’Naughten.

    It really does not matter who the voice in the head claims to be, the person hearing the voice is going to start taking it seriously after a while.

    By the way, in Clark v Arizona last week, the Supremes held that a state is free to do away with the second (mens rea) prong of M’Naughten. Under that standard both mothers are guilty so long as they understood what they were doing.

  9. #9 Paul Riddell
    July 6, 2006

    Unfortunately, this is par for the course: in my many, many years in Texas, I’ve come across many similar “experts” who’ve offered grand entertainment when expected to testify on one case or another. For instance, until 1993, the city of Dallas had a film ratings board that offered a “Suitable For Children/Not Suitable” rating in addition to the MPAA ratings system, and the film board used to find all sorts of interesting characters to attest that the board’s decisions were allegedly sane. My personal favorite was when the studio distributing Poltergeist argued that the Dallas Film Board’s “Not Suitable” rating was bogus, and the Board found some nutjob of a child psychologist who claimed that the scene in the film with the parapsychologist peeling his face off was dangerous because “teenagers would try to emulate that scene.” (I was fifteen at the time, and I was insulted as all hell that someone would argue this: my peers and I had far too much of a low pain threshold to try something that stupid, when blowing your fingers off with fireworks at least had some sense of style.)

    Strangely enough, part of the reason why Dallas stopped financing the Ratings Board in ’93 was because of these bizarre “experts”, mostly because they kept rationalizing the more and more surreal decisions by some of the senior members of the Board. The final straw came when Disney actually started legal proceedings against the Board over its “Not Suitable” rating of the film Sarafina: the Board found it Not Suitable due to sexual content, and when asked, the head of the Board pointed to a scene involving a group of prison guards beating a prisoner. One of the guards was apparently enjoying himself, so the film was displaying unacceptable sexual content because “that’s sadism”. That was the straw that finally made the Dallas City Council realize that the Board was making Dallas into more of a laughingstock than usual, and considering that my home town’s unofficial slogan is “Aside from that, Mrs. Kennedy, what do you think of Dallas?”, that’s saying something.

  10. #10 Chance
    July 6, 2006

    In one Pharisaic tradition Isaac is not a boy, but is a young man and is fully cognizant of his position while Abraham is very reluctant and has to be convinced by Isaac to go through with it. Isaac is willing to be sacrificed for the good of the people – which gives a background for some of the theology behind Jesus’ crucifixion.

    In some ways that makes it worse. If the boy is willing now you have a murderer and someone who is clearly mentally unwell. How on Earth could a human be so self deluded that they think being killed will satisfy the voices in their fathers head?

    There is nothing noble in this.

    The fact that Texas is allowing for these type of defenses is both scary and sad. We need more people like Judge Jones in this world.

  11. #11 ompus
    July 6, 2006

    The difference is very clear to me.

    In the first instance, the Mom kills because God wants her to kill. She is under the insane delusion that it is O.K. to kill. Critically, she never understands she is committing a bad act.

    In the second instance, Mom kills because Satan instructs her to kill. Critically, she “knows” this will anger God. This demonstrates that despite her insanity, she has *some* understanding that killing is wrong.

    The first mother demonstrates NO capacity to understand the nature of her actions. The second mother demonstrates a *hint* of understanding the nature of her act. In Texas, that bare thread of insight is apparently enough to hang a person on.

  12. #12 kehrsam
    July 6, 2006

    For the record, the Documentary Hypothesis of the formation of the Pentateuch holds that the Abraham-Isaac story comes from the E tradtion. Isaac does not anywhere appear in E after this point. So it is entirely possible that the ending as we now have it is a pastische put together by later editors to cover up Isaac’s untimely demise.

    Just food for thought.

  13. #13 John Cercone
    July 6, 2006

    “The difference is very clear to me.”

    Thanks ompus,

    I have been going nearly insane trying to figure out how what Dietz said could make any sense.

  14. #14 Ed Darrell
    July 6, 2006

    Texas modified its laws after the Reagan assassination attempt to make it more difficult to claim insanity — with some success.

    But Dietz’s testimony is troubling. I wonder why he wasn’t challenged on it by the defense attorney — he is no theologian, and he shouldn’t be spouting off on what Christianity says if he’s not qualified as an expert on Christian theology.

    And that’s just the starting point. These cases are ugly — and they are not the only ones in Texas at the moment. Alas.

  15. #15 Jim Lippard
    July 6, 2006

    I think ompus has it right. Dietz’s position is that killing one’s children is always wrong, and that a sane human would know this. If you think that God is telling you to kill your children and the act is right, then you can’t tell the difference between right and wrong and are insane. (And, therefore, Abraham was insane if he had carried out killing Isaac.) If you think that Satan (or God) is telling you to kill your children and the act is wrong, but you do it anyway, you can tell the difference between right and wrong and are not insane.

    kehrsam gets Dietz’s argument wrong at this point: “Both mothers knew what they were doing; they just thought it was the right thing to do. The argument from authority that Dietz makes is just non-sensical,and completely irrelevant to M’Naughten.” Dietz’s argument in the Yates case (as given in the USA Today article) is that Yates *knew what she was doing was wrong*.

  16. #16 Chance
    July 6, 2006

    if he’s not qualified as an expert on Christian theology

    And just who would that be?

    Secondly if all kiddos go to heaven and believers sincerely believe that premise then how can one say either lady did anything other than commit a trivial offense and a greater good was brought about because of it?

    But I digress.

  17. #17 kehrsam
    July 6, 2006

    Jim Lippard, yes, I know Dietz’ opinion on the subject, but don’t agree; his interpretation of the law is simply mistaken, unless Texas has a vastly different understanding of the M’Naughten rule than we have here in NC.

    My point, and I apologise if this was not clear, was that if hearing voices were not per se enough to make you crazy from a legal standpoint, how does the fact that you believed the voice to be God rather than Satan creates a meaningful legal distinction?

    Let’s ignore that there are Satanists who might view such voices as authoritative. Rather let’s look at the M’Naughten second prong: “[I]f he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.”

    Authority that might appeal to a sane person is not an issue. The proper issue is, “Did the defendant have sufficient self control to resist the actions suggested by the voice?” Whether that voice be God or Bugs Bunny is irrelevant to that determination. The only proper question is whether the defendant could be said to be operating under her own free will. In other words, did she have the necessary specific intent to commit the crime? If her actions were controlled by the inner voice, the answer is no, regardless of who that voice might be.

    From this standpoint, Dietz’ distinction is meaningless.

  18. #18 Sexy Sadie
    July 6, 2006

    If Dietz really thinks that God tells people to kill their children as a test, like the bible says of Abraham, then shouldn’t he be defending Dietz as being sane because it could be true?

    Forgive me for nitpicking, but don’t you mean defending Laney as being sane?

  19. #19 bay-of-fundie
    July 7, 2006

    God is a moral leader in Texas; Satan is not. Listening to God is insanity; listening to Satan is not. This seems backward. (Personally, I think listening to either is insane, but we’re talking about how average people perceive things.)

  20. #20 ompus
    July 7, 2006

    I think it should be noted that Dietz stands on multiple premises. As I stated above, I think it is entirely reasonable to distinguish between a person who is commanded by a voice, and a person who is “torn” between voices.

    But Dietz goes further and says that it also depends upon “who” commands the individual. On this point, I fully agree with kehrsam… it should make no difference.

    Finally, I want to acknowledge that we’re talking about legally insane versus clinically insane. That is, Yates and Laney seem to be clinically insane on all measures.

  21. #21 CPT_Doom
    July 7, 2006

    Finally, I want to acknowledge that we’re talking about legally insane versus clinically insane. That is, Yates and Laney seem to be clinically insane on all measures.

    Actually ompus, IIRC from my days in the psych major in college (one of my classes was “Psychology and the Law”) there is not such thing as “clinically insane.” Insanity is, in fact, a legal designation, and tells you nothing about any underlying mental illness the person may be suffering. Someone may be legally sane – that is, he/she knows what they are doing and understands there may be consequences to it – while still having an underlying mental disorder, like depression, which does not necessarily interfere with one’s ability to distinguish right and wrong.

    One can also be legally insane and not have any mental illness whatsoever. Think of Farrah Fawcett’s character in “the Burning Bed.” She argued temporary insanity – basically, that her husband’s abuse had so terrorized her that she felt in fear of her life even when he was napping – so her killing of him was justified. There was no necessity of underlying mental illness for this defense to work.

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