Incorrect testimony about a nonexistent episode of a popular TV drama — and new questions about the innocence of the mistake — may be grounds for a new trial for Andrea Yates.
California psychiatrist Park Dietz erred when he testified in the highly publicized 2002 trial that an episode of Law & Order featured a mother who drowned her children. In the TV plot, the woman schemed to escape a confining marriage, Dietz said. She claimed she suffered from postpartum depression and was acquitted.
No such Law & Order episode ever aired, but an e-mail from a teacher to the Harris County district attorney’s office alerted them that a TV drama dating back to the 1980s, L.A. Law, did run a similar episode — and gave the defense what they hope will be ammunition for a new trial.
Dietz’s error might not have been caught, but Suzanne O’Malley, a writer for Law & Order and an investigative journalist, was in the courtroom when he testified. She suspected Dietz was wrong, then called the show’s producers to be sure.
After some legal wrangling before the sentencing, jurors were alerted to the mistake.
Or was it a mistake?
Public records in the 1st Court of Appeals refer to the e-mail that was sent by the schoolteacher to the district attorney’s office shortly after the Yates murders in 2001.
The teacher had just seen a rerun of the old L.A. Law episode and realized the plot bore some resemblance to the Yates case, and she thought the prosecutors ought to know.
Today, the teacher asks not to be named and will not comment on her e-mail. But her laywer, Philip Hilder, said the staff at the district attorney’s office — he won’t say who — took increasing interest in the e-mail as the trial date approached. They called the teacher several times to talk about it, Hilder said.
“My client doesn’t understand how the prosecution could confuse L.A. Law and Law & Order. She has some question as to the truth, the veracity of Dr. Dietz.”
Dietz has not returned Chronicle calls.
To complicate matters, prosecutors Joe Owmby and Kaylynn Williford were required by law to share the teacher’s e-mail with the defense if they knew Dietz’s testimony was either a mistake or a lie. Defense attorney George Parnham says prosecutors shared nothing, though they should have known or did know the testimony was false.
Owmby says he can’t comment on the e-mail but noted that he did not ask the question that prompted the discussion of Law & Order — Parnham did. Owmby said he had no idea Dietz’s testimony was false when he presented it, and Williford said she was unaware, too.
Not only that, Williford says, Dietz’s testimony was inconsequential. She didn’t refer to it, she said, because there was so much more relevant material to discuss.
Hilder disagrees. He says the mistake, perhaps the compounded mistakes, are grounds for a new trial. “At minimum, aw, geez, it’s inexcusable. It goes to the very heart of the integrity of the judicial system.”
A Harris County grand jury also considered the e-mail and a possible aggravated perjury charge this past summer.
Jury foreman Jim Brooks explained, “We were looking into the (Houston Police Department) crime lab, and we had requested some paperwork, and this e-mail just popped up. We were really surprised to see it. It staggered the imagination.”
Grand jurors considered indicting three individuals involved in the Yates trial, Brooks said. Park Dietz was one, but Brooks wouldn’t name the other two. In the end, grand jurors didn’t have the required nine votes, Brooks said. Dietz was no-billed.