Mother convicted of murdering her five children

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Andrea Yates, the Texas mother who drowned her five children in the bathtub, was found guilty of capital murder yesterday, despite ample testimony during her 17-day trial that she was suffering from severe mental illness and may not have been responsible for her actions.

The jury in Houston ­ the jurisdiction with the single highest count of death penalty convictions in the United States ­ took just three and a half hours to reach its decision.

The judge immediately scheduled testimony starting today to determine whether Yates should receive life imprisonment or the death sentence, the only two options available under Texas law.

The verdict is likely to provoke an outcry among mental health professionals, as well as legal experts who have long railed against Houston's singularly vindictive approach to criminal justice.

Such views were echoed by Yates' attorney, George Parnham, who told the jury during yesterday's summing up: "If this woman doesn't meet the test of insanity in this state, then nobody does. Zero. We might as well wipe it from the books."

Yates, 37, suffered from severe post-partum depression after the births of her last two children. Her husband was encouraged to keep having children by a small religious sect he belonged to, and shunted his wife from one psychiatrist to another after he was warned of the dangers of submitting her to another pregnancy. The sect also taught that Catholics are the devil incarnate. Yates was raised as a Catholic.

She killed the children, aged seven years down to six months, after she was left alone with them one morning last June. She took them to the bathtub one by one and drowned them face-down in five inches of water.

She immediately called both the police and her husband to tell them what she had done.

The trial heard she told the police that she wasn't mad at the children, but that she killed them because they weren't developing properly and she was a bad mother.

During the trial, the jury heard that she had no particular feelings as she carried out the gruesome acts. She later told investigators that she believed her children were possessed by Satan, and killing them was their only chance to go to heaven.

In dismissing Yates' insanity defence, the prosecution relied largely on a University of California psychiatrist, Park Dietz, who argued that despite her illness she still knew that killing the children was wrong. The defence noted Mr Dietz's high expert witness fee and suggested his testimony had in effect been bought.

"I know one thing, that if we had between $50,000 and $100,000 and we called him first, Park Dietz might have been testifying for the defence," another lawyer for Yates, Wendell Odom, said during his summing up.

On the other side, another psychiatrist, Lucy Puryear of the Baylor Psychiatry Clinic in Houston, diagnosed Yates with a "baseline psychiatric disorder, probably schizophrenia" as well as deep post-partum depression. Dr Puryear said Yates was incapable of sorting rational from irrational thought or right from wrong at the time of the drownings.

Earlier in the trial, a psychiatrist, Eileen Starbranch, who counted Yates among her patients, testified that she was "one of the five sickest people I've treated".

While under Dr Starbranch's care, Yates was given strong anti-psychotic drugs that helped stabilise her after the birth of her fourth child and pulled her out of a deep depression that caused her to attempt suicide on two occasions.

After Dr Starbranch warned the couple not to have any more children, they dropped her as a psychiatrist. Yates became pregnant again, leading to another downward spiral exacerbated by the death of her father.

In seeking a criminal prosecution of Yates in the first place, not to mention lobbying for the death penalty, Houston district attorney's office went against the wishes of Yates' husband who has unfailingly supported her in his public statements. Yesterday, he and other family members were in tears as the jury announced its decision Russell Yates, a computer engineer with Nasa, the US Space Agency, listened with his head leaning against his outstretched hands, as if in prayer. "Oh, God," he muttered, as Judge Belinda Hill read out the jurors' decision.

The controversial verdict is likely to stir up issues going well beyond the specifics of the Yates family, focusing attention once again on the proclivity of several US states ­ including Texas ­ to seek the execution of the mentally impaired, in contravention of all civilised standards as understood by other democratic nations.

In his summing up, Mr Odom appeared to sense which way the wind was blowing in the Yates case, at the same time waxing indignant at the prosecution but also conceding that its viewpoint would probably win out.

"We all know this woman is and was extremely ill," Mr Odom said.

"The state is is looking for a technicality on how to convict her because some people don't want to accept that you can be so ill that you can kill five people ... Technically, she had a general concept that the world perceives drowning as wrong. Therefore, we can convict her on a technicality."