AUSTIN -- And a happy New Year to all the friendly folks at the Henry Cisneros' special prosecutor's office, now coming up on its seventh year. Cisneros, who left office five ago as Clinton's housing secretary, is back in San Antonio doing good works in the area of affordable housing. But his special prosecutor David Barrett, like Ol' Man River, he just keeps rolling along.

Cisneros, having long since pleaded to a misdemeanor and paid a $10,000 fine, is no longer a target of investigation, but Barrett is reportedly still investigating someone who did or did not tell him something about Cisneros. It's bound to be a high crime, since the entire flap was over whether Cisneros had lied to the FBI -- not about whether he had given money to his ex-mistress (an affair that was both over and public knowledge well before Cisneros ever went to Washington) -- but about how much he had paid her.

So the moral here is: Don't ever lie to the FBI about how much you have paid an ex-mistress, even if it's common knowledge that you have done so. The Cisneros special prosecutor costs the taxpayers over $2 million a year and is no doubt worth every penny.

The special prosecutor law is now dead, too, Congress having realized that it had created a Frankenstein monster -- but there is no way to kill off Barrett's office.

In another revolting development, Andrea Yates -- the Houston mother who drowned her five children in the bathtub -- is the poster woman for a long-needed change in the law. Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal is now indicating that he may not seek the death penalty after all, but will go for a life sentence in exchange for a guilty plea.

This woman needs to be put in a mental hospital, not put to death or in prison for life. She's clearly insane -- almost as insane as the Texas criminal justice system. Yates has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Well, she's guilty. She killed her five kids and then called the police to report that she'd done it. Nothing can make her not guilty of that hideous act, but she is not a responsible person. The system needs a plea of "guilty but insane." Insanity is not cured by putting people in a Texas prison. It's not good for those with mental health problems.

What are we saying by prosecuting this woman? That we don't think there is such a thing as mental illness? Exactly how benighted do we want to prove we are in the year 2002? Yates had a history of post-partum psychotic depression and had tried to kill herself twice. In 1999, when she had four children, doctors told her and her husband she should not have another because of the psychosis.

Two weeks before the murders, she was taken off anti-psychotic medication and put on anti-depressants. She went downhill, and her husband begged her doctors to put her back on the stronger meds. She was described as being in a "zombie-like state" at the beginning of her incarceration and has since been put back on Haldol, the anti-psychotic often prescribed for those who hear voices or are thinking delusionally.

Do people think she would be "getting away" with murder?" Do they think she's faking her illness? What possible solution to this tragedy can be offered by the criminal "justice" system?

While the Yates trial plays itself out, a new film about mental illness, "A Beautiful Mind" starring Russell Crowe, is having an extraordinary impact on those who see it. It is a biography of John Forbes Nash Jr., who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1994 for work he had done as young man before paranoid schizophrenia cost him about 30 years of his life.

For a long period, Nash was the "town nut" in Princeton, N.J., a demented character familiar to everyone. Nash, extraordinarily enough, recovered from schizophrenia, which is quite rare.

I have no idea whether Yates will ever recover -- certainly not from having murdered her own children. But Yates is not the one facing a test, this society is. Can we do no better than the superstitious medieval tradition of burning the witch at the stake?

To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2002 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.