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Mother Who Drowned Children is Found Guilty of Capital Murder


March 13, 2002
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Mother Who Drowned Children is Found Guilty of Capital Murder

by Jim Yardley, The New York Times

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 4:45 p.m.

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 was wrong.

"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 expressed shock.

"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 illness.

"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 Unabomber.

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," he added.

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."



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