Around 10:00am on June 20, 2001, Rusty Yates received a startling phone call from his wife, Andrea, whom he had left only an hour before.
“You need to come home,” she said.
Puzzled, he asked, “What’s going on?”
She just repeated her statement and then added, “It’s time. I did it.”
Not entirely sure what she meant but in light of her recent illness, he asked her to explain and she said, “It’s the children.”
Now a chill shot through him. ”Which one?” he asked.
“All of them.”
He dropped everything and left his job as a NASA engineer at the Johnson Space Center. When he arrived fifteen minutes later, the police and ambulances were already at their Houston, Texas home on the corner of Beachcomber and Sea Lark in the Clear Lake area. Rusty was told he could not go in, so he put his forehead against a brick wall, trying to process the horrifying news, and waited.
Restless for information, he went to a window and on to the back door where he screamed, “How could you do this?” According to an article in Time, at one point Rusty Yates collapsed into a fetal position on the lawn, pounding the ground as he watched his wife being led away in handcuffs.
John Cannon, the police spokesperson, described for the media what the team had found.
On a double bed in a back master bedroom, four children were laid out beneath a sheet, clothed and soaking wet. All of them were dead, with their eyes wide open. In the bathtub, a young boy was submerged amid feces and vomit floating on the surface. He looked to be the oldest and he was also dead.
In less than an hour that morning, five children had all been drowned, and the responding officers were deeply affected.
The children’s thin, bespectacled mother—the woman who had called 911 seeking help—appeared able to talk coherently, but her frumpy striped shirt and stringy brown hair were soaked. She let the officers in, told them without emotion that she had killed her children, and sat down while they checked. Detective Ed Mehl thought she seemed focused when he asked her questions. She told him she was a bad mother and expected to be punished. Then she allowed the police to take her into custody while medical personnel checked the children for any sign of life. She looked dispassionately at the gathering crowd of curious neighbors as she got into the police car.
Everyone who entered the Spanish-style home could see the little school desks in one room where the woman apparently home-schooled them. The house was cluttered and dirty, with used dishes sitting around in the kitchen. The bathroom was a mess.
Yates’ family photo
This crime story would unravel in dark and strange ways, with the reasons why a loving mother of five had drowned all of her children tangled in issues of depression, religious fanaticism, and psychosis. The nation would watch with polarized opinions , as the State of Texas was forced into a determination about justice that was rooted in glaringly outdated ideas about mental illness.
But in the meantime, Andrea Yates sat in a jail cell and Rusty Yates had to deal with a demanding media that not only wanted a scoop but also wanted an answer. Why would any mother murder all of her children?
The Yates children ranged in age from six months to seven years, and all of them had been named after figures from the Bible: Noah, John, Luke, Paul, and Mary. Four were boys and the infant a girl.
Once they were known to be dead, the children were left in place for three hours to await the medical examiner’s van. Rusty, 36, was kept outside his own home, says Suzy Spenser in Breaking Point, for five long hours. He told the police that his wife was ill and had been suffering from depression. She’d been on medication.
At Houston Police headquarters, an officer turned on a tape recorder to take the formal statement of the woman who had already admitted to killing all of her children. Her name was Andrea Pia Yates and she was 36 years old. She stared straight ahead as she answered questions and said, with little energy, that she understood her rights.
“Who killed your children?” the officer asked.
“I killed my children.” Her eyes were blank.
“Why did you kill your children?”
“Because I’m a bad mother.”
For about seventeen minutes, they pressed her for details of exactly how she had proceeded that morning.
She had gotten out of bed around 8:10 and had waited for her husband, Rusty, to leave for work at nine. The children were all awake and eating cereal. Andrea had some, too. Once Rusty was gone, Andrea went into the bathroom to turn on the water and fill the tub. The water came within three inches from the top.
Then one by one, she drowned three of her sons, Luke, age 2; Paul, age 3; and John, age 5. She put them in facedown and held them as they struggled. As each one died, she then placed him face up on a bed, still wet, and then covered all three with a sheet. Each had struggled just a few minutes. Next was six-month-old Mary, the youngest, who had been in the bathroom all this time, sitting on the floor in her bassinet and crying. When Andrea was finished with Mary, she left her floating in the water and called to her oldest son, Noah.
He came right away. ”What happened to Mary?” he asked. Then apparently realizing what his mother was doing, he ran from the bathroom but Andrea chased him down and dragged him back to the tub. She forced him in face down and drowned him right next to Mary. She admitted in her confession that he had put up the biggest struggle of all. At times he managed to slip from her grasp and get some air, but she always managed to push him back down. His last words were, “I’m sorry.” She left him there floating in a tub full of feces, urine and vomit, where police found him. She lifted Mary out and placed her on the bed with her other brothers. Andrea gently covered her before calling the police and her husband. It was time.
Had the children done something to make her want to kill them? The officer asked.
You weren’t mad?
She admitted that she was taking medication for depression and she named her doctor, whom she had seen two days earlier. She believed she was not a good mother because the children were “not developing correctly.” She’d been having thoughts about hurting them over the past two years. She needed to be punished for not being a good mother.
The questioning officer was confused. How was the murder of her children a way to achieve that? “Did you want the criminal justice system to punish you?” he asked.
She had almost done the same thing two months earlier, she admitted. She had filled the tub. Rusty was home at the time, so she just didn’t do it.
The officer asked for the birth dates of each of her children and then stopped the tape.
The media soon learned that Andrea had suffered from depression for at least two years and had been hospitalized for attempted suicide.
By the end of that first awful day, Andrea Yates was charged with capital murder for “intentionally and knowingly” causing the deaths of three of her children, using water as a weapon. She was not charged in the deaths of the two youngest boys. There was no indication on this report, says Spencer, that she suffered from mental illness.
Andrea Yates in prison
Yet Rusty was telling the media that she had suffered bouts of serious depression since the birth of their fourth child two years earlier.
In fact, her most recent psychiatrist, Dr. Mohammed Saeed, had called Rusty on the day of the drownings. He appeared to be stunned and apparently wanted to make it clear that he had believed that Rusty’s mother was always at the home.
On the local radio, talk show hosts were buzzing, asking people to call in and express their outrage at a mother who would do such a thing. They tried her in the court of public opinion and found her worthy of death.
However, Rusty had made a decision. He felt torn, he said, but it was not his wife who had killed the children, but her illness. He went out to the throng of reporters and, holding a portrait of the once-happy family, told them everything he could recall from that dreadful day. He believed that the Andrea he knew was not the one who had turned against their kids. As he searched desperately for reasons that hadn’t been obvious before, he made it clear that he intended to support her.
“She wasn’t in the right frame of mind,” he said.
On June 22, Andrea appeared before Judge Belinda Hill and listened to prosecutor Kaylynn Williford state the case against her. It was Williford’s first capital case and she went at it with all she had. Andrea then quietly said that she did not have an attorney. The judge appointed public defender Bob Scott, who requested a gag order. The county prosecutor’s office had not yet said whether they would seek the death penalty, but Williford and her partner, Joseph Owmby, told the press that they did not intend to make their decisions public. Owmby said that it was the most horrendous case he’d ever seen.
Andrea Yates prison ID
Rusty looked for an attorney to take Andrea’s case. He talked with family friend, George Parnham, who agreed to get involved. His first act was to get family members in to see Andrea. Spencer describes the initial meeting between Rusty and Andrea, according to Rusty. Andrea’s first words were, “You will be greatly rewarded.” She rejected the attorney and told Rusty to “Have a nice life.” He was completely confused. Later he found out that she had been given a sedative.
Wendell Odom came on the case to assist Parnham, and he said that all Andrea asked when he sat with her was what kind of plea they were going to enter and insisted she did not want to plead not guilty. He watched her, with her sunken eyes and hair hanging over her face, and believed she might not even be competent to stand trial. She had said that she heard the voice of Satan coming out of the walls of her cell. Dr. Lucy Puryear, a psychiatrist from the Baylor College of Medicine, said on Court TV’s Mugshots program “She was the sickest person I had ever seen in my life.” In those early days, Andrea was unbathed, dressed in an orange prison uniform, and seemingly unaware of what was going on around her. She was shaking, and every now and then she absently scratched at her head. Puryear believed she was suffering from postpartum psychosis.
Andrea’s medical records were subpoenaed from the Devereux Texas Treatment Network, where she’d last been seen.
While postpartum depression occurs in up to twenty percent of women who have children, psychotic manifestations are much more rare, and thus much less understood. Only one in five hundred births result in the mother’s postpartum psychosis, says forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner. Unlike in Britain, where the mental health system watches mothers for months afterward for signs of depression and mood swings, people in America have a difficult time understanding how hormonal shifts can actually cause violent hallucinations and thoughts. Such women can become incoherent, paranoid, irrational, and delusional. They may have outright hallucinations, and are at risk of committing suicide or harming their child—particularly “for the child’s own good.” The woman herself will not recognize it as an illness, so those countries that have programs for it generally advise immediate hospitalization.
A psychiatric examination was ordered for Andrea. One psychiatrist, featured on Mugshots, asked Andrea what she thought would happen to the children. She indicated that she believed God would “take them up.” He reversed the question and asked what might have happened if she had not taken their lives.
“I guess they would have continued stumbling,” which meant “they would have gone to hell.”
He wanted to know specifically what they had done to give her the idea they weren’t behaving properly. She responded that they didn’t treat Rusty’s mother well, adding that, “They didn’t do things God likes.”
Five days later, on the day of the children’s funeral, the judge issued a gag order, effectively ending information leaking to the press. For the time being, anyway. Items kept leaking out.
Time reporter Michelle McCalope attended the June 27 funeral for the five children at Clear Lake Church of Christ and published an account of the service. Rusty looked tired and grim in the unbearable humidity. He looked at the small cream-colored caskets, open for viewing, and placed Mary’s favorite blanket inside hers. The baby was dressed in pink. Rusty cried as he spoke his final words to her. He did the same at each of the other four open coffins, telling them they were now in good hands and placing some favorite item inside.
He gave a half-hour eulogy that addressed each child’s personality and offered family stories. He had a projector on which he showed pictures of the children, happy and having fun. Then he offered some scriptures, saying that what had happened was God’s will. At the end, he sat down, clearly still in shock.
Andrea’s relatives attended as well.
By June 28, a staff writer for ABC News predicted what might happen to Yates. While juries tend to punish the killing of strangers harshly, they often are more lenient with mothers. Juries have a difficult time in America sending a mother to lethal gas or the electric chair. In 2000, Christina Riggs was a notable exception. She killed her two children in a suicide attempt, and was put to death in Arkansas. At the time of the article, there were eight other women on death row, yet approximately 180 children are murdered annually by their mothers.
Typically, a woman has a believably tragic story to go along with her deed, although some like Mary Beth Tinning, Susan Smith, and Marie Noe turned out to have killed for reasons other than their initial excuses. Thus, excuses become suspicious. And sometimes an act is so overwhelming that no mental condition seems to count as a reasonable explanation.
On July 31, a Houston grand jury indicted Andrea Yates for capital murder in the cases of Noah, John, and Mary. Because she had killed someone under the age of six and had killed more than one person, she was eligible for the death penalty. There was talk that the prosecutors would keep the other two deaths as fallback, in case they did not get convictions. Judge Hill ordered a third psychiatric examination, with the results due before Yates’ arraignment.
A deteriorating Andrea went to court on August 8 to enter an insanity defense. She was even thinner now than she had been in June, although she had been medicated with Haldol, the only drug that had worked for her. A rudimentary psychological report done for the court indicated that she was competent to stand trial. But Parnham and Odom weren’t content. They wanted a jury to make that determination, since their own psychiatrists had concluded that she was not competent. In other words, she was not able to participate in her own defense with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and comprehension of the court proceedings.
Defense attorney George Parnham
The judge granted their request to look at the medical testimony that Dr. Saeed’s gave to the grand jury and set a date for a competency hearing. She granted the prosecution’s request to have their own experts examine Andrea.
The next day, the prosecutors stated that they would be seeking the death penalty. No one was allowed to comment publicly, not even Rusty. Yet on September 5, he met with Ed Bradley from 60 Minutes to answer questions. He turned over videos of the children and talked about Andrea, but shied away from his feelings about the forthcoming trial. He was also prepared to answer questions for Time magazine and anticipated that they would come out after the hearing. He had hired an attorney, Edward Mallett, to fight the gag order. At some point during the hearing, DA Chuck Rosenthal spoke with the 60 Minutes crew as well.
Suzy Spencer’s Breaking Point
On September 18 (postponed one week due to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.), a jury selection began for the competency proceeding. Eleven women and one man were selected. In Breaking Point, Spencer gives a comprehensive account of the proceedings.
Andrea’s attorneys filed hundreds of pages of documentation on her history of mental illness. Their experts claimed she was not ready, while the prosecution experts were about to declare her competent. Andrea’s mother and siblings were subpoenaed, as were several jail employees. The lawyers argued over the State’s psychologist seeing Andrea without the defense’s knowledge, and the judge made a ruling that the information could not be used—although toward the end of the hearing, it was.
Parnham called Dr. Gerald Harris, a clinical psychologist who had interviewed Andrea in prison on four occasions. On June 25, she had shown signs of psychosis and hallucinations. She said she had seen Satan in her cell and he was talking to her. She had a difficult time processing Harris’s questions and sometimes did not seem to hear them at all. She did make it clear that she wanted to be executed so that she and Satan, who possessed her, would be destroyed. She had insisted that she would not enter a plea of not guilty. She did not need an attorney, and she wanted her hair cut into the shape of a crown. She believed the number of the Antichrist, 666, was imprinted on her scalp.
By the end of August, on medication, she was much improved. She reported no hallucinations and was able to hold a conversation. She still had delusions about Satan but insisted she was not mentally ill. Her intelligence was above average, but she had difficulty remembering things—an important issue for competency. She believed that Satan lived inside her and the way to be rid of him was for her to be killed.
Andrea Yates in court, much improved by medication
Dr Lauren Marangell, an expert on depression, testified about changes in the brain during different psychological states. She also provided a map of Andrea’s psychotic episodes since 1999. She concluded that Andrea would be competent in the foreseeable future, with continued treatment.
The prosecutors took their witnesses—mostly prison staff—over the thirteen points involved in assessing competency. Then they questioned Dr. Steve Rubenzer, who had spent over ten hours with the defendant and who had administered a competency examination on several successive occasions—the very assessments that were in dispute because they were done without Parnham’s knowledge. It was his opinion that the defendant’s comprehension had improved over time and that she did pass the state’s competency stipulations. However, he believed that Andrea Yates did have a serious mental illness and he thought her psychotic features were only in partial remission.
Under cross-examination, he admitted that she believed that Satan inhabited her and that Governor Bush would destroy him. But Bush had not been the governor of Texas at that time.
Two more mental health experts testified, and while they were divided on the competency issue, all recognized psychosis in Andrea’s condition and no one thought she was malingering.
On September 24, the jury deemed Andrea Pia Yates competent to stand trial. The defense quickly prepared motions.
Now it was time for both sides to learn more about who she was, what her mental health history was, the quality of her marriage, and what factors had been involved in her fateful decision.
The Evolution of An Illness
Andrea Yates was born Andrea Kennedy on July 2, 1964 into a middle class family in Houston, the youngest of five children. She had developed a very close relationship with her father, a high school teacher, and she liked to help other people. She graduated from high school as class valedictorian and had been captain of the swim team. She had been shy with boys but was goal-oriented like the rest of her family, and had good friends. She earned a nursing degree from the University of Texas Health Science Center and found work as a registered nurse. She quit after she married and had her first child.
Timothy Roche delved deep into her history for Time and discovered a rather disturbing picture of a troubled family, including a long history of mental illness for Yates. But there was more, emphasized in a documentary for Court TV’s Mugshots. The form mental illness takes often has an outside influence, and this one was insidious.
Andrea and Rusty had met when they were both 25. Rusty had seen her swimming in a pool of his apartment complex and had decided he was interested in her. She introduced herself to him and they dated for three years. In 1993, they were married and a year later had Noah. They planned on having as many children as came along, whatever God wanted for them, and told friends they expected six.
Yet soon after Noah was born, Andrea began to have violent visions: she saw someone being stabbed. She thought she heard Satan speak to her. However, she and her husband had idealistic, Bible-inspired notions about family and motherhood, so she kept her tormenting secrets to herself. She didn’t realize how much mental illness there was in her own family, from depression to bipolar disorder—which can contribute to postpartum psychosis. In her initial stages, she remained undiagnosed and untreated. She kept her secrets from everyone.
Rusty introduced Andrea to a preacher who had impressed him in college, a man named Michael Woroniecki. He was a sharp-witted, sharp-tongued, self-proclaimed “prophet” who preached a simple message about following Jesus but who was so belligerent in public about sinners going to hell (which included most people) that he was often in trouble. He even left Michigan, according to Mugshots, to avoid prosecution.
Rusty corresponded with Woroniecki, who wandered around with his family for several years in a bus, and eventually he believed he had found the Holy Spirit. Woroniecki spent a lot of time in his street sermons and letters to correspondents judging them for their sins and warning them about losing God’s love. In particular, he emphasized that people were accountable for children, and woe to the person who might cause even one to stumble. He once stated, “I feel like I need a sledge hammer to get you to listen.” He denounced Catholicism, the religion with which Andrea had grown up, and stressed the sinful state of her soul.
He also preached austerity, and his ideas were probably instrumental in the way the Yateses decided to live. As Andrea had one child after another, she took on the task of home-schooling them with Christian-only texts and trying to do what the Woroniecki and his wife, Rachel, told her.
“From the letters I have that Rachel Woroniecki wrote to Andrea,” says Suzy Spencer on Mugshots, “it was, ‘You are evil. You are wicked. You are a daughter of Eve, who is a wicked witch. The window of opportunity for us to minister to you is closing. You have to repent now.’”
According to a former follower, the religion preached by the Woronieckis involves the idea that women have Eve’s witch nature and need to be subservient to men. The preacher judged harshly those mothers who were permissive and who allowed their children to go in the wrong direction. In other words, if the mother was going to Hell for some reason, so would the children.
After two more children had come along, Rusty decided to “travel light,” and made his small family sell their possessions and live first in a recreational vehicle and then in a bus that Woroniecki had converted for his religious crusade and sold to them. Andrea didn’t complain—she was the type of woman who just went along with decisions—but she got pregnant again and had a miscarriage. Yet it wasn’t long before she recovered, was again pregnant and had her fourth child, making their 350-square-foot living quarters rather cramped. She continued to correspond with the Woronieckis and to receive their warnings. They thought it was better to kill oneself than to mislead a child in the way of Jesus—a sentiment she would repeat later in prison interviews.
Not surprisingly, she sank into a depression. She was lonely. She tried to be a good mother, but the pressures were building. At the same time, her father grew ill with Alzheimer’s and she had to help care for him. Then things got bad.
The Bottom Falls Out
In 1999, Andrea called Rusty at work and told him she needed help. When he arrived home, he found her shaking and chewing her fingers, so he took her and the children to his parents’ home, where she said she felt better. But then she tried to kill herself with a drug overdose from her father’s medication, and with Andrea’s mother’s help, Rusty finally got her into treatment. Later she said she had just wanted to “sleep forever.” She was diagnosed with a major depressive disorder. She admitted to anxiety and having overwhelming thoughts. Those who observed her and spoke to Rusty, according to several accounts, believed that he was controlling.
Andrea was prescribed Zoloft for depression, but she was resistant to taking medication, ostensibly because she wanted to be able to breast-feed her youngest child. Many presumed it was because the Woronieckis would judge her harshly for it. She soon withdrew and began to sleep a lot. She worried about the hospital bill and would not talk about her home life. The insurance money ran out.
The ailing mother was discharged and another psychiatrist switched her to Zyprexa, an antipsychotic drug for bipolar disorders and schizophrenia. Andrea flushed the pills down the toilet. Then she got worse.
She told her psychiatrist that she was hearing voices and seeing visions again about getting a knife. She began to scratch at herself, leaving sores on her legs. Then Rusty found her in the bathroom one day pressing a knife to her throat. He took it away and got her hospitalized.
Andrea confessed to one doctor that she was afraid she might hurt someone. She refused medication and withdrew from all efforts to help. She refused to answer questions. Finally, she was given a shot of the antipsychotic drug Haldol. She got a little better, and then worse, so she was given more Haldol. She improved slightly, but would not eat. She was afraid of what her visions might mean.
Relatives had pressured Rusty to buy a house for his family, so he did, moving the bus into the yard by the garage at their new Clear Lake home.
Andrea sometimes talked with social workers, but often changed her story. She’d been suicidal, she had not been suicidal. She did admit that she got anxious when stressed and she vaguely associated stress with her children. The doctor anticipated that electroshock therapy might eventually be needed. It was controversial, but had shown some positive benefits for depressed older women. Andrea, he wrote, also needed to develop coping strategies for stress. For two days, she refused her medication. Then she was discharged with more prescriptions for pills that she would avoid taking.
She continued therapy, which included group therapy, and said she wanted to get off medication so she could get pregnant again. She seemed anxious, so her outpatient therapist, Dr. Eileen Starbranch, switched her to the sedative Ativan. She worried that Andrea’s plan for more children could result in psychosis. Andrea did not take the Ativan.
At home, Andrea remained secretive and seemingly obsessed with reading the Bible. Rusty thought that was a positive thing. Andrea’s therapist took her off Haldol, but had her continue with several other antidepressants. Andrea decided to discontinue them on her own. Despite doctors’ warnings to have no more children, they had a baby girl, Mary, late in 2000. Rusty believed he would spot the onset of depression and get help if needed. He was sure any bad effects could be controlled with medication.
To this point, she’d experienced several episodes of psychotic hallucinations, survived two suicide attempts, taken a number of different medications, and been diagnosed in several institutions with major depression. Now she had five young children to care for, three of whom were still in diapers.
When Andrea’s father died a few months later, she stopped functioning. She wouldn’t feed the baby, she became malnourished herself, and she drifted into a private world. Rusty forced her back into treatment at Devereux Texas Treatment Network in April under yet another doctor, Ellen Albritton, who put her on antidepressants.
Then psychiatrist Mohammed Saeed took over her care. He received scanty medical records from her previous treatment and no information from her, so he put Andrea on Risperdol, a new drug, rather than Haldol. He had not heard about hallucinations, and he observed no psychosis himself, so he felt Haldol was unnecessary. However, Suzy Spencer indicates that the notes kept on Andrea were disorganized and scribbled over someone else’s chart. The descriptions of Andrea’s condition, which was near catatonia, were vague. Saeed discharged Andrea into her husband’s care, with a suggestion for partial hospitalization, and gave her a two-week prescription.
Rusty’s mother came from Tennessee to help out with the children, but Andrea wound up back in the hospital. When she started to eat and shower, she was sent home, with the proviso that she continue outpatient therapy. One day she filled the tub and her mother-in-law asked why. She responded, “In case I need it.”
It seemed a strange statement, and no one knew how to interpret it, so they let it pass. They did not see the forewarning except in hindsight.
Yet Rusty was worried, so he took Andrea back to the doctor, telling him that she was not doing well. According to Roche, Saeed reportedly assured him that Andrea did not need shock treatment or Haldol, but Spencer says that he did suggest shock treatments and did prescribe Haldol. Andrea was shuffled back and forth, and early in June, Dr. Saeed took her off the antipsychotic medication.
Then on June 18, Rusty was back. Andrea was having problems. Saeed supposedly told Andrea to “think positive thoughts,” and to see a psychologist for therapy. However, he says that he did warn Rusty that she should not be left alone. Rusty told author Suzy Spencer that on that day Saeed had cut Andrea’s medication—now it was Effexor–too drastically and he had protested, but the doctor had reassured him it was “fine.” Rusty had filled the prescription, still confused as to why the doctor thought that an obviously sick woman was doing okay. That was two days before the fatal incident.
Andrea sat at home during those days in a near-catatonic state, and to Rusty she seemed nervous. However, he did not think that she was a danger to the children, so on June 20 he left her alone. Since his mother was coming, he felt sure everything would be fine. Andrea was eating cereal out of a box, which was uncharacteristic of her, but her demeanor seemed okay. He didn’t think a few minutes alone would be a problem.
How wrong he was.
On that morning, she had a plan.
On October 30, Parnham and Odom filed nearly three-dozen pre-trial motions, including a rather crucial request that the Court reconsider a procedure in the Texas Criminal Code that prohibited jurors from learning that a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI) was not an outright acquittal. It involved sending the person to a mental institution for treatment and periodic re-evaluation. Those defendants did not just walk free. The attorneys believed that such knowledge could play a strong role in how the jury made a decision in this case.
The two attorneys also wanted Yates’s confession thrown out because she had not been competent to waive her rights and they asked the Court to declare the insanity plea, as it was stated in Texas law, to be unconstitutional, because it was not in touch with what we now know about the true nature of mental illness.
In November, the prosecution’s psychiatrist, Dr. Park Dietz, came to interview Andrea. A nationally prominent psychiatrist who consulted for the FBI and worked on such cases as serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and Susan Smith (who also drowned her children), he generally only worked for the prosecution. He had limited knowledge of postpartum depression.
Dr. Park Dietz testifies in court
The interview was taped, and after the trial it was released to the public. Andrea told Dietz that at the time of the killings in June, Satan was inside her, giving her directions. “I was pretty determined,” she admitted, “to do what Satan told me to do.” She also indicated that she felt that by killing her children before they went downhill morally, she was ensuring they would get into heaven. That’s the only place where they would be safe. Dietz asked her several times whether she knew that what she had done was wrong and she answered yes. She had planned for at least a month to kill them at some point when she was alone with them.
December was a difficult month. Andrea’s lawyers tried to fight the capital murder charge, and failed. While they were granted a number of motions, they did not get those they felt were most crucial. In particular, the jury would not learn that in the event of an NGRI verdict, Andrea would go into treatment.
Both Rusty and the police officers who had gone to the scene testified at a hearing. The judge ruled that Andrea’s 911 call and her confession would be admissible. Rusty had spoken out in September, violating the gag order, and his 60 Minutes interview was broadcast on December 9. A special independent prosecutor was appointed to probe the violation by both Rusty and DA Rosenthal, but the talk was that he would delay it until after the trial, which was fast approaching. By the end of the trial, the issue would be moot.
Jury selection began on January 7, 2002. It took a week, and in the end, eight women and four men were seated. Seven had children and two had degrees in psychology. They were “death qualified.” The trial date was set for February.
Andrea would have to prove that on the morning when she had drowned her children she’d had a mental disease or defect that prohibited her from understanding that what she had done was wrong. Since she was claiming that she did indeed know that it was wrong, the attorneys needed experts who could prove that her manner of processing this information was in itself rooted in psychosis. Not only did they have to meet one of the most restrictive standards in the country for insanity, they had to educate the jury in ideas about mental illness that were rife among the public with stereotypes and misperception and to help them get beyond the literal interpretation of “right” and “wrong.” A mock trial that the defense had tried had already shown them that a jury in their area might have a difficult time accepting that someone can confess to such a crime and not understand what she had done.
They had to present a very strong case.
The Case Against Her
Andrea Yates was being tried on two counts of capital murder—one for the two older boys and one for Mary. Because it had caught the nation’s attention and because it was so controversial, her case was to become a high-profile arena for the battle of medical experts.
Opening statements began on February 18. The prosecution claimed that Andrea Yates had drowned her five children and had known it was illegal and wrong. There would be plenty of signs supporting that. For example, she waited until her husband had gone to work so he would not stop her, she prepared for it, she was methodical, and she called the police afterward. Owmby and Williford wanted to keep the jury focused on whether she knew right from wrong at the time of the offense. Her mental illness, they would insist, was not relevant to that.
Prosecutor Joseph Owmby
The defense said that she did not know what she was doing because she had been legally insane. She’d been suffering from postpartum depression with psychotic features and her delusions had driven her to kill her children. Her illness, said Parnham, “was so severe, so longstanding that Andrea Yates’ ability to think in abstract terms, to give narrative responses, to be able to connect the dots was impaired.” He explained that it was important that they not give the impression to the jury that they were claiming a “devil made me do it” defense. They were trying to indicate the disordered nature of Andrea’s thinking.
In other words, the primary question in this case was whether Yates had killed the children while in a state of disabling psychosis or had knowingly done it to escape a life she hated or to punish her husband.
The real problem for the defense was that medication had stabilized Andrea over the eight months since the crimes had occurred and in court she appeared to be normal—a far cry from her initial prison interview on the day of the crime. Yet they ethically could not have withheld medication for demonstration purposes. It was a dilemma.
The prosecution laid out its case first, with the 911 call, the testimony of police officers who responded to the scene, Andrea’s prison confession, and with autopsy reports from medical examiners. Jurors heard about how one child had strands of his mother’s hair clamped in his little fist. They showed photos and home videos of the children, while Andrea cried.
Andrea’s mother-in-law then took the stand and discussed her observations of “her precious daughter-in-law” during the time she had been helping with the children. Mrs. Yates described Andrea as nearly catatonic, staring into space, and did not think she was aware of what she was doing when she killed the children. She was a better witness for the defense, it seemed.
The prosecutors entered the children’s pajamas into evidence, over Parnham’s insistent protest, to “show” how much smaller these children were than their mother. Parnham believed it was merely to inflame the jury, but Judge Hill sided with Owmby. He then worked hard at proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Andrea Pia Yates had knowingly murdered her children.
After three days, the prosecution rested and the defense called its first witness.
During the defense’s presentation of proof of Andrea’s insanity, Parnham and Odom used prison psychiatrist Melissa Ferguson to testify to Andrea’s state of mind soon after her arrest. After being placed on medications that allowed her to process questions and to talk, she admitted to her fears about Satan: He had spoken to her and the children through cartoons they were watching on television. They were bad because they were eating too much candy. He demanded that she kill the children, and to be rid of him, she believed she had to get the death penalty. Her children, she said, could never be saved, because she had not raised them right. She had decided on drowning because stabbing was too bloody.
Rusty also took the stand and described his wife’s manner with the children. He admitted that he had not grasped the full extent of his wife’s illness and often just did not know what to do. Andrea did not tell him about the hallucinations or voices and he had assumed that the doctors he took her to had done whatever could be done. He admitted being frustrated with Dr. Saeed’s refusal to use Haldol or keep her hospitalized.
Saeed had written in her records that she had no symptoms of psychosis. He went on the stand during the start of the third week of trial. He had diagnosed her with depression with psychotic features but did not have evidence that she was psychotic two days before the fatal incident. Parnham accused him of doctoring his notes to protect himself, based on his perception that the handwriting about the lack of psychotic features was smaller than other writing on the report. Saeed vehemently stated that he had written the notes on the same day.
Then Andrea’s mother took the stand to talk for ten minutes about Andrea being a wonderful mother. There was no cross-examination.
Now it was time for the big guns. Odom and Parnham called on psychiatrists Phillip Resnick from Case Western University in Ohio, Steve Rosenblatt, and Lucy Puryear to explain that Andrea suffered from schizophrenic delusions and had believed that killing her children was the right thing to do.
The defense psychiatrists tried hard to show the jury that Andrea was incapable of knowing what she had done within a normal context of interpretation.
“It’s not like she could come up with a list of options,” Puryear said. ”She was psychotic at the time and driven by delusions that [the children] were going to Hell and she must save them.”
Rosenblatt, who interviewed her five days after the killings said that he observed that she was in a deep state of psychosis, and it would have taken her weeks to get that sick. He concluded that she had been in that hallucinatory state at the time of the incident. He could not say why she had stopped taking her medication.
They described Andrea’s suicide attempts and her hallucinations after her first child was born. Puryear talked about her shame over such ideations and her need for secrecy. She also educated the jury in the difference between postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis, and indicated that Andrea was suspicious that Satan may have influenced her doctors.
Dr. Phillip Resnick
Dr. Resnick, a specialist in parents who kill their children, described the killings as “altruistic.” He admitted that Andrea did know that what she was doing was illegal but believed her decision to kill her children was nevertheless right, for the protection of their eternal souls. He believed, after seeing her in her cell on two different occasions, that she suffered from schizophrenia and depression. While he contradicted the other doctors, he said each had his own interpretation of the data.
Dr. Park Dietz, in from TAG, his threat assessment firm in California, was a rebuttal witness after the defense presented its case. Much was made in the media about the fact the Resnick and Dietz were once again head to head. They had been on opposite sides of several other high-profile cases and Dietz usually won the day. His forte was to make complicated psychological issues simple for juries, and in the Yates case he used a Power Point presentation to do so. While he admitted that Andrea was seriously ill, possibly even schizophrenic, he also insisted that she had nevertheless known that what she was doing was wrong.
He pointed out that she had not acted like a mother who believed she was saving her children from Satan, and she had kept her long-festering plan a secret from others. Thus, while she knew she was having delusions about harming others, she had done nothing to protect them. She even admitted she knew that what she had done was wrong—it was a sin—and by Texas law, these facts were sufficient for the jury to convict Yates of first-degree murder. She knew she deserved the death penalty and that it was a punishment for doing something wrong. She also believed that God would judge her act as bad, and Dietz interpreted her covering of the bodies with a sheet as evidence of guilt. The fact that she had not comforted and reassured them in death indicated that she had not killed them as an act of love and protection.
“Ordinarily when someone keeps a criminal plan secret,” Dietz said, “they do it because it’s wrong.”
He tended to blame others, notably Rusty. He described the note from Dr. Saeed in her medical records that she was not to be left alone. That implied that she was severely impaired and was not safe to leave with children. He pointed out that she did not follow the advice of her various doctors and made decisions based on her belief that she knew what was best for herself. She had been living in unhealthy conditions during her illness and not gotten good continuous care. In her cell when Dietz interviewed her, Andrea had admitted that it had been a bad decision to kill the children, and said, “I shouldn’t have done it.” She thought the devil had left after she committed the crime. “He destroys and then leaves.”
To counter much of what the defense’s psychiatrists had laid out, Dietz opened up possibilities to the jury when he said that Andrea’s psychosis may have worsened the day following the incident, while in jail where psychiatrists first saw her. ”There seemed to be new delusions and disorganized thinking on June 21.” The motive for killing her children, he indicated, appeared to be the same as her suicide: to escape an intolerable, high-stress situation.
Dietz also had learned that Andrea was an avid viewer of the television show, Law and Order, for which he consulted, and he believed that an episode of that show in which a mother drowns her child in a bathtub had inspired Andrea. His observation gave her actions the quality of premeditation.
Dietz was the final act before both sides summed up their cases for the jury.
For closing statements, Kaylynn Williford asked the jury to be silent for three minutes so they could experience the amount of time each child had endured the drowning process before dying. It was a dramatic maneuver and Parnham could do nothing to prevent it. He wrapped up his case by emphasizing the points the psychiatrists had made. It was clear that he cared very much what might happen to the woman in his charge.
The trial had lasted three weeks, but it took the jury less than three hours on March 12, 2002, to return a verdict of guilty. Rusty buried his face in his hands and moaned. Andrea looked back at her brother Brian and tried to smile, but instead she began to cry and turned away to walk off with the prison guard.
“The way the case unfolded,” said Owmby. ”I was confident that the jury would find her guilty and reject the insanity defense.” Williford, said, “I think the jury focused on the children.”
The nation now debated whether Andrea Yates should be sentenced to death. Many felt the verdict was unfair and hoped the jury would do what they considered the right thing and at least give her only life in prison. Many others felt that a jury that had been quick to find her guilty might show no such compassion. Some raised the issue that the jury might have made a different decision had they understood that an NGRI verdict would have kept Andrea institutionalized and would have ensured mental health treatment. Why weren’t they allowed to have that information?
Then the defense attorneys, says Roche, discovered a significant flaw in Park Dietz’s testimony. The television episode that he claimed had inspired Andrea and which prosecutors had used to show premeditation had never aired. Dietz sent a letter admitting to his error and to the fact that Andrea had never mentioned the show to him.
He also did post-trial interviews in which he said that he disagreed with the way the state of Texas worded the insanity plea. He believed that people as sick as Andrea Yates should be handled differently than other criminals were.
In light of all this, Parnham and Odom asked for a mistrial. Judge Hill said no.
During the penalty phase that spring, the same jury quickly returned a sentence of life in prison (in less than forty minutes) rather than death, and Andrea Yates received this news with little emotion. She would be eligible for parole in 2041, when she was 77. She was sent to Mountain View Unit, a state psychiatric prison in eastern Texas.
Rusty announced that his family had been mishandled by the mental health system. He did not see that he had been adequately warned and he insisted that Andrea had not been adequately treated. He decided to set up a Web site to inform people about mental illness and to post pictures and facts about his children.
Postpartum Psychosis: A Tough Sell
- On October 21, 2002 in Kansas City, Mary Bass, 32, was convicted of two counts of second-degree murder in the deaths of her two male children. She claimed that another personality named “Sharon” that she could not control had abused them to the point of death. She had locked them in a room and starved them, burning their legs and feet in scalding water to punish them. Psychologists said that she suffered from depression, posttraumatic stress syndrome, schizophrenia, and multiple personality disorder. She was also suicidal. She told police, “I killed my baby. I should go to jail.” Social workers had seen the abuse but did nothing to remove the children.
- In Wisconsin, Kristin Scott, 22, pleaded not guilty by reason of mental deficiency on July 18, 2003, to charges that in January she let her newborn infant daughter die and hid the remains in a plastic tub. She had also similarly hidden the remains of a child she claimed had been stillborn in April 2001. Scott’s parents discovered the remains of the most recent baby when Scott moved to Texas in June, leaving the tub behind in their home. She said that she had secretly given birth in January and because she was afraid of what people would say, the baby had to die. If convicted of reckless homicide and hiding a corpse, she faces seventy-five years in prison.
Naomi Gaines, mugshot
- Naomi Gaines, 24, had suffered for a long history of postpartum depression and mania. On July 6, 2003, she took her fourteen-month-old twins, Supreme Knowledge Allah and Sincere Understanding Allah, to the Mississippi River near St. Paul and dropped them both from a bridge 75 feet over the water. Then she jumped in after them, yelling “Freedom!” She and one boy survived when rescued in time, but the other infant drowned and his body was recovered several miles downriver near an island. She is charged with second-degree murder.
- Also in Minnesota, Khoua Her, 24, strangled her six children, ages 5 to 11, because she was depressed over her responsibilities. The police had been to her home fifteen times in a year and a half, responding to domestic violence calls, but social workers had not noticed any apparent danger to the children. The mother, who called 911 after the slaughter and spoke of suicide, was transported to the hospital with an extension cord still loosely tied around her neck. The children were found throughout the house. In a plea deal, she received a sentence of fifty years in prison.
- Evonne Rodriguez killed her 4-month-old baby in 1997 in Houston, Texas, because she believed he was possessed by demons. She had tried to “pull them out,” her mother claimed, but ended up killing the child. Evonne insisted that she had heard screeching voices, “just like Hell,” so she beat at her child with her hand and then choked him with a rosary. She wrapped him in plastic and threw him into water, but she concocted a story for police that he had been kidnapped—an indication that she knew what she had done was wrong. Her defense was that she was distraught over a bad relationship with her son’s father that had created a state of temporary insanity. Her mother testified that she had suffered from bouts of depression. The jury acquitted her and she was sent for treatment.
In America, there are no clear standards in court for dealing with mentally ill mothers—not even in the same city. Andrea Yates killed five children to save them from hell and got life in prison. Evonne Rodriguez killed one because of demons and was acquitted. Andrea probably had a better case; Evonne got the better deal.
On a CNN broadcast, David Williams addressed the issue of how difficult it is to get juries to understand the kind of depression that can follow giving birth. The primary reason juries may not understand is because such depression is temporary and treatable. Such sufferers may have been psychotic and deeply disturbed during a violent episode some time after the birth, but by the time they go to trial, they’ve usually been restored to better mental health. That makes it difficult for juries who see them in their improved condition to believe these mothers were really suffering that badly.
It’s also difficult in a country that views motherhood as sacred and asks women to see birth as cause for celebration to admit to postpartum depression. There’s little compassion to be found for the 10 to 20 percent of mothers who really do suffer.
Twenty-nine other countries recognize postpartum depression as a legal defense, writes Williams, including Canada, Britain, and Australia. If a woman who has murdered a child under a certain age—usually one year—can prove that her mental processes were disturbed, the maximum charge is manslaughter. They receive probation and counseling. They do not have to prove they were insane at the time of the crime.
Yet clearly some women kill their infants for other reasons and might exploit this defense. American emphasis on free choice and personal responsibility, makes it likely that juries will continue to give mental illness issues uneven recognition.
Andrea went to prison, but many people believed that she was not the only one who was culpable in this tragedy. Rusty had been warned not to leave her alone with the children and a doctor had taken her off medication while apparently believing that she could be a danger to herself or others. Many people believed that they shared in the blame.
Andrea Yates, mug shot
About a week after the Yates cases concluded, Harris County DA Chuck Rosenthal looked into the issue. Numerous emails had come into his office insisting that Rusty be investigated, and it did seem important to try to understand why Rusty had disregarded the doctor’s instructions. He had said repeatedly that since it would be only a short time between his departure that day and his mother’s arrival, he had believed his wife would be fine alone with the children. His attorney, Edward Mallett, insisted that Rusty was innocent of any wrongdoing.
“It’s a tragedy that Rusty now has to defend himself after standing by his wife,” Mallett said to the press.
Rusty Yates in court
It was Rusty’s contention that those who were most responsible are the doctors and hospitals that did not treat Andrea properly, and he talked about a lawsuit against them.
In the end, there was no investigation.
The film A Beautiful Mind details the peculiar twist of mental illness in the case of John Nash, a brilliant economist who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia much of his life. It revealed that a person can appear to function normally to everyone around him even while trapped in delusions where imaginary people play roles and hold conversations with him. Yet his illness finally became apparent, though it took much longer to be so for him. To his mind, this was the real world.
Doctors testifying for Yates made that claim. “She did what she thought was right in the world she perceived through her psychotic eyes at the time,” said psychiatrist Phillip Resnick. In other words, even if she seemed to understand the difference between right and wrong, she did not know what she was doing.
The prosecutors claimed she knew her actions were wrong,.
How these two sides lined up on different poles of interpretation illustrates the great divide between the concepts of mental illness and legal insanity in the U.S. This case made it clear that it’s time for courts to better address the gap.
Yates’ defense team proved her history of delusional depression, use of anti-psychotic drugs, and suicide attempts, and there’s documentation that postpartum mood swings can sometimes evoke psychosis. Yet no matter how many doctors testified to Yates’ mental decline, the legal issue hinged on only her mental state at the time of the offense. As Yates drowned her children one by one, even chasing down seven-year-old Noah to drag him to the tub, did she really have any awareness that what she was doing was wrong? If so, then awareness implies the ability to choose.
Past juries have been convinced that even the delusional can see the moral implication of their behavior. Jeffrey Dahmer, the Wisconsin man who in 1991 confessed to killing 17 men, is one case in point. He admitted he’d drilled holes into the heads of some of his victims to create living zombies. He’d also envisioned building a shrine from their skulls.
Yet Dr. Park Dietz pointed out Dahmer’s rational acts: When confronted by the police with one of his intended victims, he invented a misleading story and then took the young man home to kill him. He was mentally ill, yes, but he also knew that what he was doing would land him in prison and he obviously exercised some control. Thus, he was legally sane.
Kendra Webdale, victim & Andrew Goldstein
Andrea Yates knew that, too. In fact, she believed that the state’s punishment for what she had done would finally defeat Satan. She fully expected to be jailed and even to be executed. Her case is similar to that of Andrew Goldstein, who in 1998 pushed Kendra Webdale in front of a Manhattan subway train, killing her instantly. He then leaned against a wall and said, “It was her turn.” Like Yates, he’d felt compelled and also like Yates, he had stopped taking medication prescribed to alleviate the symptoms of schizophrenia. Despite seeing evidence of his psychosis in a video-taped confession, the jury convicted him of second-degree murder.
This gap between legal insanity and our evolving knowledge about mental illness has roots in a court decision in 1843. In England, Daniel M’Naghten felt persecuted by imaginary spies so he shot the Prime Minister’s secretary. He did intend to kill, but his cognitive impairment was such that the court used his case to formulate a test of insanity: the defendant must not know the nature of his act or understand that it’s wrong.
American courts eventually adopted this standard. Despite reforms, the court’s confidence in free will yields little room for behavior driven by distorted perceptions. In Texas, Yates was presumed sane unless her team could show that she did not know that what she did was wrong. This is partly due to the shift in their standards in 1983, after John Hinkley’s assassination attempt on President Reagan ended up in NGRI. Public outrage prompted many states, including Texas, rethink NGRI. They enacted the more restrictive terms of mere knowledge of right and wrong. If you know, then you aren’t insane. That’s that.
Andrea Yates waited that morning for her husband to leave, knew murder was a sin, expected to be punished, and called 911, so it appears that she could control her behavior. Yet that argument depends on a simplistic idea about the relationship between awareness and choice. It may be time to legally recognize that even someone who knows the law can still be seriously impaired regarding how they conform to that law.
Mental Health Weekly published an article that the Yates case has made lawmakers and mental health officials in Texas take another look at the issues, in particular with regard to more funding for the state’s mental health system. State representative Garnet Coleman, a mental health advocate, indicated that he intended to introduce legislation to revise and refine the insanity defense laws. Legislators will be considering whether to return to a former Texas standard of acknowledging a person’s inability to conform their behavior to what they know about right and wrong. It will be interesting to see what results.
An Honest Mistake?
On January 6, 2005, nearly three years after jurors sentenced Andrea Yates to life in prison, an appeals court overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial. While Yates’ attorneys had appealed on nineteen separate legal grounds, including the claim that the Texas insanity standard is unconstitutional, the item that got the court’s attention involved the testimony of Dr. Park Dietz, a prosecution psychiatrist. He apparently made a false statement, which figured into the way the case was presented to the jury. Who was actually to blame for this testimony is still a bit of a mystery, but the end result is that the three-judge panel of the First Appeals Court in Houston decided that the erroneous statements may have precipitated a miscarriage of justice.
Dr. Park Dietz
Essentially, it appears that the prosecution was attempting to show that Andrea Yates had seen an episode of the popular crime show, Law and Order, in which a woman had drowned her children, and this had given her the idea that she could kill her own children and feign mental illness. That character had supposedly been found not guilty by reason of insanity, and the episode was said to have aired not long before Yates drowned her children. Evidence was offered that Yates was a regular viewer and it was surmised that she may have seen the story and related it to her own situation: She was a beleaguered mother seeking a way out. And that’s how the prosecution presented it.
Logo for Law and Order
But no such episode ever aired. Yates never saw a woman kill her children and thus could not have devised a copy-cat killing with a plan to fake an illness. (In fact, her years of coping with mental illness were well-documented and attested to by numerous mental health experts.) So the case presented by the prosecution was based on an idea with no factual basis. With a defendant’s very life at stake, how did it happen? The stories are mixed.
KWTX.com indicated that after the appeals court decision, when Dietz was asked about his testimony, he called it an “honest mistake.” He apparently indicated, according to this report, that he got the information about the episode from a conversation with the prosecution. Yet in the same article, Yates prosecutor Joe Owmby said that he asked Dietz whether the show had ever dealt with such a case and then dropped the subject until Yates’ attorneys asked about it later. He did not believe that his request had caused the false testimony. Still, the story grew.
Logo for L.A. Law
According to the Houston Chronicle, before the trial a local woman had sent the Harris County district attorney’s office an e-mail indicating that reruns of a show called L. A. Law had featured an episode with this plot. It seems that the prosecution team might have confused the two shows while discussing the case with Dietz, but a writer attending the trial who heard Dietz’s statement called the producers of Law and Order and told defense attorney George Parnham that Dietz was in error. Dietz said that he, too, attempted to correct the error by consulting with producers. He stated that he immediately researched the matter and sent an e-mail to the prosecutors, offering to return at his own expense. The letter was dated March 14, 2002, indicating that Dietz had confused an episode based on Susan Smith and an episode inspired by prom mom Melissa Drexler and the case involving Amy Grossberg. However, his letter did not get into evidence.
Jurors were told about the confusion before sentencing, but the appeals court still considered the original testimony legally problematic, especially since it was mentioned in the closing argument. While it’s not clear who is to blame for allowing the incorrect testimony to become part of the trial record and jury deliberations, appeals courts are set up for just such occurrences. According to the Associated Press, the appeals court ruled thus: “We conclude that there is reasonable likelihood that Dr. Dietz’s false testimony could have affected the judgment of the jury. We further conclude that Dr. Dietz’s false testimony affected the substantial rights of appellant.”
Prosecutors insisted that the state did not knowingly rely on incorrect testimony, while also pointing out before the panel that Dietz’s testimony, even if wrong, was not material to the case, as they had other ways of showing that Yates had planned to kill her children. The appeals court agreed, but since the prosecution had referred to the testimony in making its case, including mentioning it during the closing argument, it may well have influenced the jury’s perception.
A New Trial?//
Yates could still be tried in the deaths of two of her children, since she was only convicted in the deaths of three. However, a new trial, whether it be for the same deaths again or for those for which she has not yet been tried, may be a crap shoot for either side, and an expensive one at that. The defense has not only learned what did not work three years ago, but they also have access to another high-profile Texas case in which a mother was acquitted by reason of insanity for killing her children at the instigation of supernatural commands.
Deanna Laney, also evaluated by Park Dietz, stoned her three sons in 2003, two of whom died, because she believed God wanted her to. Dietz found her to be unaware of what she was doing, although she had nowhere near the history of mental illness that Yates had. “She struggled over whether to obey God or to selfishly keep her children,” Dietz had testified. His impression was that she had felt she had no choice. Experts scratched their heads over why God’s command made a woman insane but the Devil’s command did not – especially after Dietz gave an interview to a Virginia newspaper in which he stated that Yates was indeed mentally ill.
While Yates did commit a horrendous crime when she drowned all five of her children, the nation has heard a great deal more since then about both post-partum psychosis and about the problems with the insanity defense. A new jury made up of people possibly exposed to all this information could be quite a different story.
Although Harris County prosecutors say they will appeal the court’s decision, legal speculation indicates, according to Newsweek, that it’s likely to be settled with Yates reassigned to a private mental institution rather than a prison. There she can be properly evaluated. Her husband, Rusty, filed for divorce in July 2004, but hopes the criminal charges will be dropped. Those who currently care for Yates indicate that she is still considered mentally unstable, and during the fall of 2004, when she was overcome with the horror of what she had done, she had tried to kill herself by refusing to eat, and was hospitalized. A settlement, rather than a trial, may well be in her best interests.
Yet the legal issue remains. While friends and associates of Dietz insist on his integrity and claim that he would not knowingly make a misstatement, one can only wonder why an expert who did not research the information beforehand would testify to it from vague recall. Or why the DA’s office did not bother to check its accuracy. Yates’s life hung in the balance. She might well have been given the death penalty. Fortunately her attorney ensured that the system worked appropriately.