HOUSTON, March 12 -- Taking less than four hours to reach a verdict,
a Texas jury today found Andrea Pia Yates guilty of capital murder in the
bathtub drowning deaths of three of her five young children. Jurors must
now decide whether the mother, in whom severe mental illness had been diagnosed,
should be sentenced to death.
The swift verdict came after more than three weeks of testimony in a
case that has revived national debate about how mental illness is perceived
and treated. When Judge Belinda Hill of State District Court read the verdict,
repeating the word "guilty" after each charge, Mrs. Yates stood motionless
as her lawyer George Parnham hugged her around the waist.
Mrs. Yates, 37, has confessed to drowning all five of her children, though
prosecutors had charged her with only three deaths in this case. She had
pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and had shown emotion only rarely
during the proceedings. But moments later, she looked at her mother and
seemed to stifle a sob.
Her husband, Russell Yates, gasped, "Oh my God!" under his breath and
buried his head into his hands after the verdict was read. When Judge Hill
told spectators to rise as the jury left the room, Mr. Yates remained seated.
He later muttered, "Unbelievable," and then departed without comment as
his mother followed him, sobbing.
The jury of eight women and four men heard nearly three hours of closing
arguments this morning and then began deliberating after lunch. At one point,
they requested an audiotape player. During the trial, jurors heard both
the 911 recording of Mrs. Yates's call to the police and her taped confession.
The jurors sent word that a unanimous verdict had been reached at about
Rusty Hardin, a former local prosecutor who is now a prominent civil
and criminal defense lawyer, said the audiotape request suggested that jurors
were concentrating on Mrs. Yates's actions on the morning of the June 20
killings, perhaps more than the voluminous psychiatric testimony presented
to buttress her insanity plea. Mr. Hardin, who watched closing arguments,
said prosecutors convinced the jury of the crucial point that though Mrs.
Yates was mentally ill, she understood at the time that killing her children
"The way she did it and the way she acted afterwards was inconsistent
with somebody who didn't know what she was doing," Mr. Hardin said. "That
was the defense's problem."
Under Texas law, which has a strict standard for the insanity defense,
Mrs. Yates could have been found not guilty only if jurors believed she
suffered from a mental defect that prevented her from distinguishing right
from wrong. Jurors will now hear a new round of testimony in a punishment
phase to determine whether Mrs. Yates should be sentenced to life in prison
or death. That hearing is scheduled to begin on Thursday.
Cyndie Aquilina, a social worker who volunteered as a jury consultant
for the defense team, stood outside the courthouse after the verdict and
"It's ludicrous," Ms. Aquilina said of the verdict. "This woman shouldn't
have even been on trial." She blamed the verdict on "ignorance," adding,
"I think people do not understand mental illness."
The office of Chuck Rosenthal, the Harris County district attorney, which
infuriated many national women's groups by seeking the death penalty, had
chosen to charge Mrs. Yates on two counts of murder in the deaths of three
of the five children. Had the jury acquitted her, this would have allowed
prosecutors to bring other charges on the two remaining deaths.
Mrs. Yates called the police on the morning of June 20 and told responding
officers that she had killed her children -- Noah, 7; John, 5; Paul,
3; Luke, 2; and Mary, 6 months. Officers saw four of the bodies lined up
on a bed beneath a cover, as if tucked in for sleep. The fifth, Noah, was
seen floating in the bathtub.
In closing statements earlier today, the prosecutors, Joe Owmby and Kaylynn
Williford, reminded jurors of the grim details of that morning and argued
that Mrs. Yates had acted deliberately and with deception.
Ms. Williford told how police officers who arrived at the home described
Mrs. Yates as composed and seemingly rational. Ms. Williford said investigators
found Mrs. Yates's hair in John's fist, suggesting that he had fought back.
She also reminded jurors that Mrs. Yates dragged Noah, her oldest son, from
the hallway into the tub.
"The loving act of a mother was to leave his body floating in the bathtub,"
Ms. Williford said with scorn in her voice. She later added: "She made the
choice to fill the tub. She made the choice to kill these children. She
knew it was wrong."
At one point during Ms. Williford's arguments, Mrs. Yates cried silently
at the defense table.
Mr. Parnham and his fellow defense lawyer, Wendell Odom, spent much of
their defense presenting more than 11 physicians, psychiatrists and expert
medical witnesses to support their argument that Mrs. Yates was insane on
the morning of the killings. In 1999, postpartum depression and psychosis
were diagnosed in her after the birth of her fourth child. Twice, she tried
to commit suicide.
But she seemed to recover when a doctor prescribed her the anti-psychotic
drug Haldol. Despite a doctor's warning that she should not have more children,
she and her husband chose to have a fifth child, Mary. Mrs. Yates again
became depressed and psychotic, her psychiatrists testified, a malaise compounded
by the death of her father last March.
Defense lawyers argued that Mrs. Yates was so gripped by psychosis on
June 20 that she thought killing her children would save them from eternal
damnation. Dr. Melissa Ferguson, a psychiatrist who examined Mrs. Yates
at the Harris County jail the day after the killings, described her as one
of the most severely mentally ill people she had treated among more than
6,000 cases. Other medical witnesses also testified to the severity of her
"If this woman doesn't meet the test of insanity in this state, then
nobody does," said Mr. Parnham, the defense lawyer. "Zero. You might as
well wipe it from the books. She was so psychotic on June 20 that she absolutely
thought she was doing the right thing."
He later added: "This is about prevention. This is an opportunity for
this jury to make a determination about the status of women's mental health.
Make no mistake, the world is watching."
Prosecutors had countered with their own star medical witness, Dr. Park
Dietz, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California at Los
Angeles School of Medicine. Dr. Dietz, who interviewed Mrs. Yates in jail,
testified that Mrs. Yates understood that her actions were wrong when she
killed her children. He said she was "grossly psychotic" the day after the
killings but that the evidence of psychosis was far less certain on the
day of the attack.
Defense lawyers attacked Dr. Dietz as a professional witness, noting
that he has been a prosecution witness in several high-profile cases, including
those of the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and Theodore Kaczynski, the convicted
But prosecutors also depended on the testimony of the police officers
who arrived at the Yates house on June 20. They described Mrs. Yates as
composed, directing them to clean glasses for a drink of water or directing
them to keys to unlock the back door.
Mr. Owmby, the prosecutor, once apologized to jurors for yelling in his
closing statements. He argued that Mrs. Yates "may have believed it was
in the best interest of the children to drown them one after the other,
but that's not the law in Texas."
"It's not that I am without sympathy or that you are without sympathy,"
But what you are asked to at this point is to decide this case
on the facts and the law, not sympathy for Andrea Yates."