Yates guilty in drowning of her children

With swift verdict, jurors unanimously reject insanity plea

Punishment phase begins

March 13, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

HOUSTON - Taking less than four hours to reach a verdict, a Texas jury found Andrea Pia Yates guilty yesterday of two counts of capital murder in the bathtub drowning deaths of her five young children. Jurors must now decide whether the mother diagnosed with severe mental illness should be sentenced to death.

The stunningly swift verdict came after more than three weeks of testimony in an agonizing case that has prompted national debate about how mental illness is perceived and treated. When Judge Belinda Hill of state District Court read the jury's verdict, repeating the word "guilty" after each charge, Yates stood motionless as her lawyer, George Parnham, hugged her around the waist.

Yates, 37, had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and has only rarely shown emotion during the proceedings. But moments later, she looked at her mother and seemed to stifle a sob.

Her husband, Russell Yates, gasped, "Oh my God!" under his breath and buried his head in his hands after the verdict was read. When Hill told spectators to rise as the jury left the room, Mr. Yates remained seated. He later muttered, "Unbelievable," then departed without comment as his mother followed him, sobbing.

The jury of eight women and four men heard nearly three hours of closing arguments yesterday morning and then began deliberating after a lunch break. At one point, they requested an audiotape player. During the trial, jurors heard both the 911 recording of Yates' telephone call to the police and her taped confession.

Jurors sent word about 4:45 p.m. that a unanimous verdict had been reached.

Rusty Hardin, a former local prosecutor who is now a prominent civil and criminal defense lawyer, said the audiotape request suggests that jurors were concentrating on Yates' actions on the morning of the June 20 killings, perhaps more than on the voluminous psychiatric testimony presented to buttress her insanity plea. Hardin, who watched closing arguments, said prosecutors convinced the jury of a key point - that although Yates was mentally ill, she understood at the time that killing her children was wrong.

"The way she did it and the way she acted afterward was inconsistent with somebody who didn't know what she was doing," Hardin said. "That was the defense's problem."

Under Texas law, which has a strict standard for the insanity defense, Yates could only have been found innocent if jurors believed that she suffered from a mental defect that prevented her from distinguishing right from wrong.

Jurors will now hear a new round of testimony in a punishment phase to determine whether Yates should be sentenced to life in prison or death. That hearing is scheduled to begin tomorrow.

Cyndie Aquilina, a social worker who volunteered as a jury consultant for the defense team, stood outside the courthouse after the verdict and expressed shock.

"It's ludicrous," she said of the verdict. "This woman shouldn't have even been on trial."

She blamed the verdict on "ignorance," adding: "I think people do not understand mental illness."

The office of Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, which infuriated many national women's groups by seeking the death penalty, had chosen to charge Yates on two counts of murder in the deaths of three of the five children. Had the jury acquitted her, this would have allowed prosecutors to bring other charges in the two remaining deaths.

Yates called police on the morning of June 20 and told responding officers that she had killed her children - Noah, 7; John, 5; Paul, 3; Luke, 2; and Mary, 6 months.

Officers found four of the wet bodies lined up on a bed beneath a cover, as if tucked in for sleep. The fifth, Noah, was floating in the bathtub.

In emotional closing statements earlier yesterday, prosecutors Joe Owmby and Kaylynn Williford reminded jurors of the grim details of that morning and argued that Yates had acted deliberately and with deception.

Williford recounted how police officers who arrived at the home described Yates as composed and seemingly rational. She said investigators found Yates' hair in John's fist, suggesting that the 5-year-old had fought back. Williford also reminded jurors that Yates dragged her eldest son, Noah, from the hallway into the tub.

"The loving act of a mother was to leave his body floating in the bathtub," Williford said with scorn in her voice. "She made the choice to fill the tub. She made the choice to kill these children. She knew it was wrong."

At one point during Williford's arguments, Yates cried silently at the defense table.

Parnham and fellow defense lawyer Wendell Odom spent much of their defense presenting physicians, psychiatrists and expert medical witnesses to support their argument that Yates was insane on the morning of the killings.

In 1999, Yates had been diagnosed with postpartum depression and psychosis after the birth of her fourth child. Twice, she tried to commit suicide.

After their fifth child, Mary, was born in late 2000, Yates again plunged into depression and psychosis, her psychiatrists testified, a malaise compounded by the death of her father last March.

Defense lawyers argued that Yates was so gripped by psychosis on the morning of June 20 that she thought killing her children would save them from eternal damnation.

"If this woman doesn't meet the test of insanity in this state, then nobody does," said Parnham. "Zero. You might as well wipe it from the books. She was so psychotic on June 20 that she absolutely thought she was doing the right thing."

Owmby, the prosecutor, once apologized to jurors for yelling during his closing statements. He argued that Yates "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."

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.