ACLU Criticizes Death Penalty Prosecution of Andrea Yates, Renews Call for Moratorium on Flawed System Statement of Diann Rust-Tierney, Director, ACLU Capital Punishment Project and Will Harrell, Executive Director, ACLU of Texas

August 31, 2001 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON–The decision by Texas prosecutors to seek the death penalty in the case of Andrea P. Yates is yet another sign that the capital punishment system in America is seriously flawed. Today we renew our call for a moratorium on the death penalty and we urge Texas to reconsider its decision.

The Yates case is yet one more in a steady — and growing — line of cases raising issues of mental impairment in death penalty prosecutions. Yates, who has been charged with drowning her five children, has been diagnosed with post-partum depression and post-partum psychosis and has attempted suicide at least four times. A hearing on her compentency to stand trial has been scheduled for September 12.

This is a terrible family tragedy. The question before us is whether the criminal justice system is capable of exercising some restraint or whether the death penalty is our only response to shocking tragedies, regardless of the underlying circumstances.

The Yates case is not occurring in a vacuum. It is happening at the very time when the overuse of the death penalty is leading to questions about its fairness. For instance, had this case been brought in a state other than Texas, it is unlikely that Yates would even be facing the death penalty. Harris County, where Yates is facing prosecution, has sent so many people to death row that if it were a state, it would rank third in the nation in executions, behind Virginia and Texas itself.

Recent activity in the Texas legislature indicates the wide range of problems with the state’s administration of the death penalty. Lawmakers recently voted to preclude people with mental retardation from being executed, only to have the measure vetoed by the Governor. Recognizing the risk of wrongful death sentences, the legislature also took the first steps to address the problem of inadequate lawyers. And bills were passed or introduced to provide access to DNA testing, reform indigent defense, and raise the cap on compensation to the wrongfully convicted. And after Houston prosecutors came under fire for using race as factor in predicting the future dangerousness of capital murder defendants, the legislature acted to reform this biased practice.

At a time when many Americans are beginning to question the inherent flaws and arbitrariness in the death penalty process in this country, we need to slow down and examine these errors rather than expand and compound them.

That’s why the ACLU of Texas has joined a coalition formed by the National Organization of Women (NOW) and including groups such as Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation to oppose the death penalty prosecution of Andrea Yates and to raise awareness of how often the death penalty is imposed on those who are mentally impaired, either by retardation or mental illness. We applaud this diverse coalition for joining their voices to the many diverse groups speaking out against the death penalty.

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