Child killer was loving mother, court told

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The Independent US

The trial of Andrea Yates, the Texan mother who drowned all five of her children in the bath, reached a critical phase yesterday when the defendant's husband began his testimony and sought to portray her as a loving mother struck by a mental illness that he and the professionals he hired did not do enough to treat.

Russell Yates, a 37-year-old computer engineer at the US space agency Nasa, made repeated eye contact with his wife and was seen blinking back tears as the court watched a 10-minute videotape of the whole family in November 2000 after the birth of the youngest child, Mary. "She's wonderful," Mr Yates said. "She was so involved with the children. She loved them and read to them."

Although he was testifying for the defence, Mr Yates faced some tough questioning from Mrs Yates's lawyer, George Parnham.

While the prosecution's case is that Mrs Yates was entirely rational when she killed her children and deserves the highest sanction possible – the death penalty – the defence is seeking to show not only that she was legally insane but that the circumstances of her life pushed her towards insanity.

Mr Yates, a member of a fundamentalist Christian sect that encouraged him to keep having more children and taught him that Catholics such as his wife were the Devil incarnate, squirmed on the stand more than once as Mr Parnham asked him about his beliefs and his handling of his wife's psychiatric treatment.

According to Mr Yates, a psychiatrist, Dr Eileen Starbranch, discouraged her from having more children after the birth of her fourth child, but did not expressly tell her not to. Dr Starbranch, who testified earlier in the week, said she did explicitly warn the couple against having more children and described Mrs Yates as "one of the five sickest people I've treated".

Mr Parnham asked Mr Yates why he did not contact Dr Starbranch again after a suicide attempt – her second – in 1999. He replied: "I guess I should have, but I didn't."

Mr Yates was also questioned about his new choice of psychiatrist after his wife fell ill again after Mary's birth. Dr Starbranch had prescribed Haldol, a strong anti-psychotic drug, and successfully brought Mrs Yates back from the brink of suicidal despair in 1999. Her new psychiatrist, Mohammed Saeed, did not prescribe Haldol and her symptoms persisted.

"Why in the world did you take your wife to ... Dr Saeed?" Mr Parnham asked.

"I guess, at the time, I saw all psychiatrists as the same," Mr Yates responded. "They all have diplomas on the wall. It was my mistake."

The defence is having to walk a fine line with Mr Yates. The academic literature suggests that mothers who kill their children but not themselves almost always do so out of revenge against their spouse. To characterise Mr Yates as a negligent husband who failed to seek adequate treatment for his wife might bolster the argument that she was insane; but to overstress his role risks bolstering the prosecution position that she acted rationally and with deliberate malice.

Mr Parnham raised the issue of the religious sect but soft-pedalled its anti-Catholic views. Instead, he asked Mr Yates to read a poem from the sect's newsletter, Perilous Times, which railed against working women. "What becomes of the children of such a Jezebel?" the poem ended.

The trial continues.