Insanity defense raised at murder retrial for Houston housewife
HOUSTON, Texas (CourtTV) — Shortly after Andrea Yates methodically drowned her five children in the bathtub, she told an investigator that she did it because she was such a bad mother she had doomed her young to eternal damnation.
The only way to save them, she said, was to kill them.
Yates’ attorneys are now trying to save the former nurse and Texas housewife from a life in prison.
For a second time to a new jury, they are putting forth a case that Yates is not guilty of murdering her children because she was insane on June 20, 2001, the day she drowned them.
“There was no question she was psychotic, not depressed, but absolutely psychotic,” defense attorney George Parnham told jurors Monday during his opening statement. Yates had a history of mental illness, Parnham said.
Records show Yates had twice attempted suicide, was diagnosed with recurrent postpartum depression, and had been hospitalized several times for psychiatric care.
When first asked by detectives why she killed her children, Parnham told jurors Yates was unable to “connect the dots” and she had no answer.
But she was put on medication for 24 hours, Parnham said, and she began to tell a doctor — who is expected to testify for the defense — the reasons for her unspeakable actions.
Mark of the beast
“She talks about a prophecy,” Parnham said.
“These children of hers needed to die in order to be saved,” he added, “because Andrea Yates was such a bad mother that she was causing these children to deteriorate and be doomed to the fires of eternal damnation.”
Parnham said that Yates believed she had the sign of the devil, 666, burned on her scalp, and she begged therapists to look at her head. What they found, Parnham said, was not the sign of the beast, but scabbing from where Yates had tried to pick away the numbers she thought were there.
Defense experts are expected to testify that “knowing that something is illegal does not mean that you know something is wrong,” Parham said.
But prosecutors say Yates understood what she was doing when she pinned each child to the bottom of the tub until they were dead. She knew what she was doing when she laid their lifeless bodies side by side in the bed she shared with her husband and called 911.
“It was wrong,” Assistant District Attorney Kaylynn Williford said during opening statements.
Yates knew right from wrong that morning, prosecutors say, and therefore, by Texas law, should not be found legally insane.
Yates calm in court
Yates, 41, sat quietly at the defense table staring at her hands as Williford described how she called her children one by one into the bathroom to kill them.
She started with Paul, 3, then Luke, 2, John, 5, Mary, 6 months, and ended with Noah, 7. She later told investigators the boy asked, “What’s wrong with Mary?” when he saw his baby sister floating face-down in water tainted by urine and feces.
Williford told jurors that all the children showed bruises and signs that they had struggled, even the infant girl.
Yates’ ex-husband Russell “Rusty” Yates appeared in court Monday with his mother.
Andrea Yates’ own mother was also in court, but sat at the other end of the row and did not speak to her former son-in law. As witnesses for the defense, they were ordered by the judge to leave the courtroom and will not be allowed back until they testify.
Rusty Yates, a NASA engineer, told Courttvnews.com that he remarried earlier this year but says he still speaks with his wife and is very supportive of her defense.
Andrea Yates was found guilty on March 12, 2002, of the capital murder of three of her five children by a jury that deliberated just under four hours. Prosecutors did not bring charges for the deaths of Paul and Luke.
But Yates’ conviction was overturned by an appeals court because a prosecution witness, forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz, testified about an episode of “Law and Order” in which a woman is acquitted of drowning her children by reason of insanity.
Prosecutors suggested to the first jury that the episode gave Yates the idea of how to get away with murder. After the verdict was reached, attorneys discovered that no such episode existed.
Her conviction was overturned in January 2005. Jurors in Yates’ first trial rejected the death penalty, saving her from a potential death sentence in the second trial.
If she is found guilty, she faces life in prison. If jurors find her not guilty by reason of insanity, Yates will be sent to a psychiatric hospital and her case will be monitored by the court, which will determine when she could be released.
Jurors also listened Monday to Yates’ 911 phone call, placed minutes after she drowned her last child. During the brief recorded conversation, Yates sounds calm, asks for an officer to come to the house, and tells the dispatcher that, no, her husband is not home.
But Yates’ breathing is heavy, and she sounds disoriented when the operator repeatedly asks her why she needs police. “I just need them to be here,” Yates finally replies. “You sure you’re alone?” the operator asks. “No, my kids are here,” Yates replies.