The Texas First Court of Appeals reversed today the capital murder conviction of Clear Lake mom Andrea Yates, who’s serving a life sentence for drowning her children in a bathtub. The three-member appeals court granted Yates’ motion to have her conviction reversed because, among other things, the state’s expert psychiatric witness testified that Yates had patterned her actions after a Law & Order television episode that never existed. In ordering a new trial, the appellate court said the trial judge erred in not granting a mistrial once it was learned that testimony of Dr. Park Dietz was false.
“It’s unbelievable,” defense attorney George Parnham said. “I’m stunned, unbelievably happy and desperately trying to a hold of Andrea.”
In 2001, Yates confessed to drowning her five children, ranging in age from 7 years to 6 months, but she pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Her case generated national interest and put a spotlight on postpartum depression. The case also raised questions about Texas’ legal system when it deals with the insanity defense.
During her 2002 trial, Yates’ attorneys argued the stay-at-home mom, who was under psychiatric care, didn’t know right from wrong when she filled up the family’s bathtub and drowned her children one by one. The Harris County jury deliberated just 3-1/2 hours before convicting her of drowning three of her children. She was not tried in the deaths of her other two children.
Yates could have received the death penalty, but the jury sentenced her to life in prison instead.
Yates’ attorneys vowed at the trial’s end that they would appeal the case because of the testimony of Dietz, who told the jury he had served as a consultant on an episode of the television drama Law & Order in which a woman drowned her children in the bathtub and was judged insane. He testified the show aired shortly before Yates drowned her five young children.
Prosecutors referred to Dietz’s testimony in his closing arguments of the trial’s guilt or innocence phase, noting that Yates regularly watched the show and that she had alluded to finding “a way out” when Dietz interviewed her in the Harris County Jail after the drownings.
But defense attorneys discovered no such episode was produced. As a result, both sides agreed to tell jurors that Dietz had erred in his testimony and to disregard that portion of his account.
Dietz later said he had confused the show with others and wrote a letter to prosecutors, saying, “I do not believe that watching Law & Order played any causal role in Mrs. Yates’ drowning of her children.”