In God's name: the trial of Andrea Yates

Andrea Yates was a respectable wife and mother, raising a God-fearing family. Then, one fine morning last summer, she drowned her five children. Why? Only now can the full, dreadful story be told
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The Independent US

Mental illness has never been much of a mitigating factor in the great retributive machine that is the US criminal justice system. Earlier this week, it did not stop the state of Georgia from executing Tracy Housel, a 43-year-old man with joint US and British citizenship, whose psychotic month-long crime spree in 1986 was almost certainly provoked by a rare form of hypoglycaemia. It has not stopped the authorities in Texas from continuing to seek the execution of John Paul Penry, a man so mentally retarded that when the Supreme Court intervened just minutes before his scheduled death by lethal injection in November 2000, he did not under- stand that he had won a reprieve until several days afterwards.

No mercy – that has been the watchword of prosecutors in jurisdiction after jurisdiction. Why would anyone imagine that the heartbreaking case of Andrea Pia Yates would be any different?

Yates is the Texas mother who drowned all five of her children in the family bathtub last summer. She had a history of psychotic postpartum depression, a husband who insisted on having more children against the advice of the psychiatrist who first treated her, and a lifestyle – largely dictated by a small fundamentalist Christian sect – that prevented her from seeking any life outside her home and even obliged her to teach her children at home. By common consent, she was overwhelmed, deeply disturbed and inadequately monitored by mental health specialists.

In any other context, she would almost certainly have been declared to be insane – even the prosecution in the case acknowledged that she is a very sick woman – and committed to a psychiatric institution for treatment. That was what her husband wanted, and that was the recommendation of almost every psychiatric expert who commented on her case, both inside the courtroom and out.

But Yates had the misfortune to fall under the jurisdiction of Harris County, an area covering Houston and its immediate suburbs, which has a reputation as the most gung-ho prosecutorial machine in the United States. It has sent more defendants to Death Row than any other county, a fact that its prosecutors tend to wear as a badge of pride. The district attorney, Chuck Rosenthal, not only decided to prosecute Yates for murder; he chose to seek the death penalty against her. Just to make sure he got what he wanted, he put her on trial for the murders of just three of her five children. Had the trial jury chosen to accept her plea of not guilty by reason of insanity, that would still have left him the option of pursuing the case of the other two children before a different jury some time in the future.

As it was, the prosecuting attorneys had nothing to worry about. After 17 days of testimony, the jury of eight women and four men took less than four hours to find Yates guilty of capital murder. Starting today, they will hear arguments in the penalty phase of the trial and decide whether to sentence her to life imprisonment – without possibility of parole for at least 40 years – or to put her to death. Texas law offers no other choices.

The outcome of the case has flabbergasted psychiatric experts, social workers and lawyers worried about the steady erosion of defendants' rights in criminal cases across the United States. "It seems to me we are still back in the days of the Salem witch trials," one of Yates's lawyers, George Parnham, commented after the verdict was returned on Tuesday afternoon.

"It's ludicrous – this woman shouldn't even be standing trial," Cyndie Aquilina, a social worker who served as a jury expert for the defence, told reporters outside the courthouse afterwards. "You can look at her eyes in the mug shot. That woman was on another planet."

The jury was not just swayed by the prosecution and its own prejudices. It was also constrained by the extremely narrow definition of insanity under Texas law, which effectively disregards the seriousness of a defendant's illness – effectively rendering any psychiatrist's opinion invalid – and considers only whether the person has any notion of the difference between right and wrong. The one pause the jury took during its deliberations was to ask the judge for a legal definition of insanity, so this was almost certainly the decisive factor. "A person can be totally psychotic and still, in that world, know right from wrong," said Gerald Treece, associate dean of South Texas College of Law. George Parnham, the defence lawyer, said in his closing statement to the court that if Andrea Yates did not qualify for the insanity defence, then the whole concept might as well be tossed in a bin.

In Britain, by contrast, the chances are that Yates would have been acquitted on the grounds of temporary insanity – if she had been brought to trial at all. Kim Rainford, a British lawyer specialising in cases involving mental illness, suggested that in the UK she would most likely have been confined to a medium-secure psychiatric hospital and treated until she was declared fit for discharge.

None of this takes away from the extraordinary, highly distressing circumstances of the case, by far the most striking instance of infanticide to reach the public attention in a Western country in recent years. On the morning of 20 June 2001, Andrea Yates waited until her husband had gone to work, filled the bath with water and proceeded to drown her children, one by one, in chillingly methodical fashion. Two-year-old Luke was the first to go, followed by Paul, three, and John, five. According to the prosecution, it took roughly three minutes to kill each one, their furious struggles documented by the deep bruises that the coroner found on each of their bodies. John was even found with a clump of his mother's hair in his clenched fist.

The fourth victim was the youngest, a six-month-old girl. As Yates was laying out her body, as she had the previous three, on the bed she shared with her husband, her first-born, seven-year-old Noah, came in and asked: "What's wrong with Mary?" He ran before his mother could answer. She came after him, snatched him up, and dragged him kicking and screaming to the bathtub where he, too, soon perished.

Once it was all over, Yates called the police and then her husband to tell them what had happened. "I killed my kids," she told the officers who rang her doorbell shortly afterwards. After she was taken into custody, she made a videotaped confession "in a zombie-like state", according to police who witnessed it. Melissa Ferguson, a prison psychiatrist who was among the first to examine her, testified at trial that Yates was among the sickest people she had seen in more than 6,000 cases.

Yates's troubles stemmed back at least to the birth of Noah, her first-born, in February 1994. Shortly afterwards, she told doctors that Satan had ordered her to find a knife and stab someone. This portended badly for Russell, her husband, who wanted to have as many children as possible. This was what his religious beliefs required. For some years, he had been in communication with an eccentric evangelist from Michigan, who holds that women – especially those who work outside the home – are essentially wicked. The sect also holds that Catholics are the devil incarnate, and Andrea Yates was raised a Catholic.

By the time Luke, the fourth child, came along in February 1999, Yates's troubles had deteriorated into full-blown psychosis. In June that year, she overdosed on Trazodone, a drug her father was taking to recover from a stroke. Three days later, her husband had to wrestle a knife out of her hands after he found her holding it to her neck in the bathroom of her mother's house.

Later that summer, she spent three weeks at a psychiatric hospital where she was given Haldol, a strong anti-psychotic drug. Her doctor, Eileen Starbranch, noted that the drug was working but warned the Yates's not to have any more children. They did not take her advice, and in early 2000, right around the time that Andrea became pregnant again, the visits to Dr Starbranch were discontinued.

No longer on Haldol, Andrea Yates began to believe that her children were possessed by Satan and that killing them was the only to way to get them to heaven. She thought for months about different methods – shooting, stabbing, or drowning – before settling on her plan. She scratched the number "666" – the mark of the Beast in the Book of Revelation – on to her scalp and imagined that cartoon characters on television were sending her secret messages.

After catastrophe had struck, Russell Yates displayed an extraordinary lack of awareness of how serious his wife's condition had been. "I thought it was going pretty well," he told reporters about his domestic arrangements. "I'm not saying it was not stressful. It was manageable. She couldn't do it while she was depressed, but ordinarily she could." When asked, at the trial, why he had decided not to seek professional help after one psychotic episode, he simply answered: "I guess I should have, but I didn't."

Whatever happens to Yates, it is hard to imagine the rest of her life being anything other than a living hell. Phillip Resnick, a forensic psychiatrist at Case Western Reserve University, said she would now have to deal with several grave issues at once: her guilt, her grief over the loss of her children, and the severities of prison, possibly compounded by the stresses of facing execution. "The incidence of suicide attempts is not small," he said of analogous cases.

The Harris County prosecutors, meanwhile, are unrepentant over their handling of the case. "She may have believed it was in the best interest of the children to drown them one after the other, but that's not the law in Texas," Joseph Owmby, the lead prosecutor, told the jury. "It's not that I am without sympathy or that you are without sympathy. But what you are asked to do at this point is to decide this case on the facts and the law, not sympathy for Andrea Yates." Her conviction is clearly another feather in his cap. Whether it advances the cause of civilisation, however, is another matter.