HOUSTON – A Texas appeals court on Thursday overturned the conviction of Andrea Yates in the drowning deaths of her five children.
False testimony by prosecution expert Park Dietz, a noted criminal psychiatrist, violated Mrs. Yates’ rights, the First Texas Court of Appeals in Houston ruled.
Dr. Dietz had testified that the 2001 drownings of the children in their bathtub at home tracked an episode of the TV show “Law and Order,” but it was later learned that no such episode existed.
The issue was a key part of Mrs. Yates’ appeals after a jury convicted her in the deaths of three of the children and sentenced her to life in prison in 2002.
Prosecutors had argued that the mistake by Dr. Dietz was not important, but the court found that “there is a reasonable likelihood that Dr. Dietz’s false testimony could have affected the judgment of the jury.
“We further conclude that Dr. Dietz’s false testimony affected the substantial rights of appellant,” the court said in sending the case back to the 230th State District Court in Houston for further proceedings, which could include a new trial.
Jurors sentenced Mrs. Yates to life in prison in the 2001 deaths of three of her children who were drowned in the bathtub at their Houston home. She was not tried in the deaths of the other two children.
The Harris County District Attorney’s Office will ask the First Court of Appeals in Houston to reconsider its decision overturning the conviction of Andrea Yates, the lead prosecutor in the case said.
“We’re disappointed,” Assistant District Attorney Joe Owmby said. “We’re not going to dismiss the case. We’re going through appellate process, several levels of appeals.”
The next step would be the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in Austin, he said.
“It’s unbelievable,” defense attorney George Parnham said. “I’m stunned, unbelievably happy and desperately trying to get a hold of Andrea.”
Mr. Parnham told KHOU-TV that he would make no effort to have Mrs. Yates released immediately unless she can be sent to a suitable mental health facility. “She’s where she needs to be,” he said.
Mental health advocates strongly criticized prosecutors when they decided to try Mrs. Yates and seek the death penalty. Many argued she should be committed to a mental institution, and she in fact has been held in a prison psychiatric unit.
Mr. Owmby said he recalls telling Assistant District Attorney Kay Lynn Williford that “we’re going to be two of the most hated prosecutors in the United States of America.”
“That turned out to be an accurate premonition,” he said.
He argued that the trial and conviction were right under Texas law, saying the appeals court is considering an “isolated incident” that amounted to about 15 minutes in a months-long case.
“But it is the basis of their decision, and they have now said that that 10 or 15 minutes was more important than all of the other evidence … that the jury heard,” Owmby said.
“I guess everybody else doesn’t think the way prosecutors think,” he added. “We really don’t have the option, as psychiatrists do, as people do, to say this is what I want to do, so I’m going to do it. And I don’t think the public wants that.”
Trying Mrs. Yates was what Texas law provided for “and what the evidence showed us,” Mr. Owmby said.
If there’s a flaw, it’s in a process controlled by legislators, not prosecutors, he said.
What it means
Although the decision finds fault with the way the Harris County District Attorney’s Office handled the Yates case, it doesn’t mean much for the bigger picture of how the law handles mentally ill defendants, a constitutional law expert said.
“They reversed on a single issue, which was Park Dietz’s testimony … but they didn’t address any of the other issues,” said Professor David Dow of the University of Houston.
The big question, Mr. Dow said, is whether prosecutors will seek the death penalty again, assuming they have to retry the case. Mr. Owmby declined to speculate on what would happen in any retrial of Mrs. Yates because the appeals process is not finished.
Houston has endured much criticism for the frequency with which Harris County prosecutors seek and win the death penalty, Mr. Dow noted.
“It was clear to most people then and clear to everybody now that she is deeply mentally disturbed. … I think this is an opportunity for the Harris County district attorney’s office to demonstrate that it is not vengeful and does not seek the death penalty just because it can.”
Two other cases in which Texas mothers killed their children since the Yates case have resulted in verdicts of not guilty by reason of insanity. That also was Mrs. Yates’ plea, but Houston jurors rejected it.
The ruling has little impact on the big picture because the Yates case is unusual, Mr. Dow said, and because the First Court of Appeals ruling doesn’t address the question of whether Texas laws governing the case are constitutional.
“One of the ironies about newsworthy cases is that … they’re newsworthy because they’re unusual, which means they don’t have relevance to more ordinary cases,” Mr. Dow said.
Mental health advocates
Deborah Bell, a spokeswoman for the Andrea Pia Yates Support Coalition, said she hopes the decision will mean that Mrs. Yates can receive “the proper kind of care, the mental health care that she should have and deserves.”
Ms. Bell, a former president of the Texas National Organization for Women, said the treatment Mrs. Yates has received in prison apparently has had some good effect.
“When last I heard from her, I got a Christmas card. It had three little angels on it, and it was the most coherent and healthy of all the correspondence I’ve gotten from her,” Ms. Bell said.
“She does understand … that she did a really horrible, bad thing, and it was the last thing she would have done had she been healthy.”
Ms. Bell said she also hopes that the decision can help bring about changes in Texas’ constitution and laws governing the handling of mentally ill and retarded criminal defendants.
“They do not deserve the death penalty,” she said.