Psychiatrist: Yates knew right from wrong, but Laney did not

The renowned psychiatrist who concluded that Andrea Yates knew her actions were wrong when she drowned her children has testified that an East Texas woman who bludgeoned her children to death with rocks did not know right from wrong at the time.

Dr. Park Dietz, hired by the prosecution, testified Tuesday that Deanna Laney had a severe mental disease that caused a psychotic episode last Mother’s Day weekend in which she believed God was ordering her to kill her children. Dietz said Laney didn’t realize her actions were wrong, which means she was legally insane under Texas law.

Laney, a 39-year-old stay-at-home mother who homeschooled her children, has pleaded innocent by reason of insanity to charges of capital murder and serious injury to a child in the deaths of 8-year-old Joshua and 6-year-old Luke and severe injury to then-14-month-old Aaron.

All five mental health experts consulted in the case, including both hired by the prosecution and one by the judge, agree Laney met the standard for legal insanity. But prosecutors wanted a jury to decide, saying expert opinions aren’t facts and other evidence suggests Laney was not insane.

The defense was set to question Dietz when testimony resumed Wednesday.

Dietz has worked on other high profile cases including that of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski and South Carolina child killer Susan Smith.

In Yates’s case, the Houston mother contended that Satan, not God, ordered her to kill her five children to save them from eternal damnation. Dietz concluded that Yates must have known murder was wrong if Satan ordered her to do it. He also saw Yates’ attempts to conceal her murder plans as a sign that she knew they were wrong.

Dietz testified Tuesday that Laney had grandiose delusions that she and Yates were chosen by God to be witnesses after the world ends. Laney believed Yates too had been ordered by God to kill her children and that the two would survive the end of the world to teach others about God, Dietz said.

“She thought she would be one of the two witnesses described in the book of Revelations,” Dietz told the jury.

Yates, who drowned her children in the family’s bathtub in 2001, was convicted of capital murder in 2002 and sentenced to life in prison after jurors rejected prosecutors’ recommendation for the death penalty. She was tried in the deaths of three of her five children.

Though Yates had an extensive history of mental illness, Laney’s family said she was never diagnosed with any mental disorder and that they never noticed any signs of illness or mood change before the killings.

Dietz said Laney had at least one other psychotic experience several years earlier, in which she had hallucinations of smelling sulfur she believed was God’s way of alerting her the devil was near. She prayed on it and it stopped, Dietz said.

But in jail after the attacks on her children, she smelled sulfur again. She finally agreed to medication and the smell went away, which Dietz said was Laney’s first indication that perhaps it was an illness, and not God, influencing her behavior.

Laney had both delusions of “foreboding and dread” and others where she read everyday events or objects as messages from the Lord. When her baby would have abnormal bowel movements, for example, should thought it was a message from God that she wasn’t properly “digesting” God’s word, Dietz said.

“To interpret what a baby leaves in his diaper reflects a mentally ill person,” Dietz said.

Deanna Laney called 911 after midnight May 10 and told a dispatcher, “I just killed my boys.”

Earlier Tuesday, her husband, Keith Laney, who slept through the attacks, told a jury that he asks every day why his wife of 19 years attacked their children.

“I don’t understand it,” said Laney, 47.

Keith Laney said he still loved his wife and smiled at her when prosecutors asked what year they were married.

Earlier Tuesday, jurors saw a crime scene video of Joshua and Luke with their skulls smashed, lying in a yard where garden signs read “Mom’s Love Grows Here” and “Thank God for Mothers.”

To show the severity of the attack on Joshua, a prosecutor hammered a 16-pound rock into the floor of the courtroom eight times. Vibrations could be felt throughout the courthouse.

Gary Bell, Deanna Laney’s pastor and brother-in-law, said some time before the killings Laney had shared with his congregation an internal prompting from God that the world would end soon.

“She said that God had been dealing with her heart, had been communicating to her that she needed to get her affairs in order because God was coming,” Bell said. “What she had to say was not out of the ordinary … We live constantly with this belief that we should be ready.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Associated Press, USA
Mar. 31, 2004
Lisa Falkenberg

Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday March 31, 2004.
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