Others see few changes forthcoming
Although Andrea Yates’ capital murder conviction was overturned on a procedural error, mental health advocates viewed Thursday’s ruling as a fresh opportunity to prove the Houston mother was insane when she drowned her children.
A Texas appellate court ruled that false testimony by prosecution expert Park Dietz violated Yates’ rights in the 2002 trial. The court said the case should be returned to the state court for further proceedings, which could include a new trial.
The court did not rule on the larger question of the constitutionality of putting mentally ill defendants on trial.
“We’re ecstatic,” said Betsy Schwartz, executive director for the Yates Children Memorial Fund for Women’s Mental Health Education. “It’s a great day for people who have mental illnesses because finally Andrea’s case will be dealt with, realizing the severity of her mental illness.”
After rejecting an insanity defense, jurors sentenced 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.
Schwartz said she would like to see Yates get help in a treatment facility, rather than prison.
The case has “made people more aware of what postpartum psychosis is and how the law needs to treat someone’s illness in a different way than they treat other criminal acts,” she said. “This also speaks to the important opportunity the Texas Legislature has to approve a bill that would make modifications to the legal definition of insanity.”
Dr. Joseph Valenti was chairman of the Texas Medical Association’s committee on maternal and perinatal care when the Andrea Yates Law went into effect in 2003. It requires hospitals, birthing centers, doctors and midwives to provide pregnant women or new mothers with a list of places that provide postpartum counseling.
Now in private practice in Denton, he said about one in five of his patients suffers from some sort of postpartum depression.
“It’s very difficult for a society that doesn’t know that much about postpartum depression to rationalize the situation,” Valenti said. “It’s not just boo-hooing and feeling bad. It can change into a psychosis situation.”
Denise Brady, an attorney and public policy analyst for the Mental Health Association in Texas, applauded the overturned conviction. She said she was concerned about Yates having to withstand another trial and suggested a plea bargain would be a better outcome for all concerned.
But she believes Yates would be found not guilty if given another chance.
“I still think there is a sentiment out here that these are just bad mothers or women who got angry or impatient and not a real appreciation of how significant this depression can be,” she said. “To put someone in a punishment environment like prison when they are so clearly mentally ill at the time of the crime is just wrong and immoral. It’s not in the spirit and interest of the law.”
Some advocates have called for the creation of a “guilty but insane” finding, saying Texans might find it more acceptable than acquittal and it would ensure that the severely mentally ill get proper treatment and supervision.
Other legal experts said that a Yates retrial likely would have little effect on Texas law.
“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.
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.
In August, Collin County jurors decided Plano homemaker Lisa Diaz’s psychotic delusions left her unaware that it was wrong to drown her two young daughters.
And Deanna Laney, who killed her two sons and maimed a third in 2003, has been undergoing treatment at Vernon State Hospital since shortly after the Tyler jury returned its verdict last year.
Another high-profile capital murder case is pending.
Dena Schlosser of Plano admitted Nov. 22 that she severed the arms of her 10-month-old daughter, who died shortly afterward at a hospital. Schlosser had been treated for postpartum depression earlier in the year.
The lead prosecutor in Yates’ case, Harris County Assistant District Attorney Joe Owmby, said he was appealing the decision. He would not comment on the possibility of a new trial.
APDefense attorney George Parnham: “I’m stunned, unbelievably happy.”
Yates would not be eligible for lethal injection in a second trial because the jury didn’t sentence her to death the first time; the U.S. Supreme Court said that constitutes double jeopardy in capital cases, said Diane Beckham, senior staff counsel for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.
However, if prosecutors decided to try her for the deaths of her other two children, they could raise the death penalty issue, Beckham said.
“If you are the prosecution, you argue that the circumstances were more egregious than they were for the other … kids and if you are the defense you argue that the double jeopardy should apply in the same course of events,” she said.
Laney’s attorney, F.R. “Buck” Files Jr., said if Yates were retried, her attorneys still would have to overcome jurors’ prejudice against acquitting by reason of insanity.
“Jurors have difficulty with the insanity defense under the best circumstances,” he said. “Insanity is never a reason to kill your kids. It only explains why you killed your children.”
Jurors also do not understand the consequences of an acquittal, he said. “There is always speculation that when you say ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ that the defendant simply walks out the courtroom door and that just isn’t the case,” Files said.
Brady said her colleagues are urging courts to keep the “not guilty by reason of insanity” plea. But jurors should be better informed of the consequences, she said.
“We do think improvements to the law, however, would make a difference. If you make it clear that judge retains authority over that person for as long if they went to prison and that they would stay on their medications, it would help,” she said.
Files said the questions about Dietz’s testimony could be a big boost to Yates’ case.
Dietz had testified that the drownings of the children in their bathtub at home was similar to an episode of the TV show Law and Order that aired before Yates acted. It later was learned that no such episode existed.
“The only mental health expert who testified she knew right from wrong was Dietz and he’s been horribly discredited,” Files said. “I’m sure (attorney George) Parnham will give jurors, if there is a new trial, every reason in the world to find Yates not guilty by reason of insanity.”
Robert Udashen, a Plano defense attorney who represented Lisa Diaz, said he felt fairly certain the case would be retried, but agreed that persuading jurors to believe a client’s insanity is another matter.
He said he experienced a backlash among some potential jurors in the Diaz case who were appalled that Laney had been acquitted of killing her sons. Other jurors believed the insanity defense was used frequently, and Udashen said he had to explain that insanity was raised in about 1 percent of all cases and even fewer are acquitted
“Because insanity verdicts are so hard to win, you really have to focus on the mental illness part of it by explaining that it is a disease and that the person didn’t know they were doing something wrong,” Udashen said. “There will be a lot of people who show up on that jury who are not willing to accept insanity as a defense, no matter what you do.”
One person who objects to the insanity defense is Dianne Clements, executive director of the Houston-based victim advocacy group Justice for All. Yates should be tried and convicted again, she said.
“I know why the jury found her guilty and it had nothing to do with Park Deitz’s testimony, but with how she murdered her children,” said Clements, who attended the trial. “There was strong, relentless testimony to her mental health but the jury didn’t buy it. They want to create some misplaced sympathy for this woman who brutally murdered her five children. It’s very frustrating.”
Dallas Morning News staff writer Bruce Nichols contributed to this report.