Opening statements heard in Yates' retrial

Texas woman drowned her five children in 2001, but conviction was overturned

June 27, 2006|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOUSTON -- Five years after Andrea Yates drowned her five children in the bathtub of her suburban home, a jury is hearing evidence for the second time on the question of her criminal responsibility for the deaths.

Yates, 41, was convicted of capital murder in 2002, but an appeals court threw out the case, ruling that the erroneous testimony of a key prosecution witness might have prejudiced the jury.

During opening statements in her retrial yesterday, defense attorney George Parnham told the jury that Yates was seriously mentally ill and thought that Satan was living inside her. The only way to keep him from getting her children, she believed, was to kill them while they were still innocent.

Prosecutors charged that Yates was sane enough to know that drowning her children was wrong because she called police to her home and confessed to the crimes. "I believe in the insanity defense," prosecutor Kaylynn Williford said. "I do not see that in this case based on the evidence."

Yates, sitting at the defense table in a light green pantsuit, was pensive but attentive throughout the day. She occasionally conferred with one of her lawyers, looking her in the eye and nodding. It was a marked contrast with Yates' first trial, when she appeared detached and heavily medicated; her lawyer has said she is taking a lighter dosage.

As in her first trial, Yates has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. If convicted of murder, Yates will be sentenced to life in prison. The first jury rejected the death penalty, and prosecutors cannot seek death again. If the jury finds Yates not guilty, she could be committed to a state hospital.

To prove Yates was insane when she killed her children, her lawyers must show she was unable to distinguish right from wrong. Under this Texas standard, even if Yates believed she was protecting her children from Satan, Yates was sane if she knew it was wrong to kill them.

Lawyers for both sides plan to present much of the same evidence from Yates' first trial, but Parnham may offer new evidence of the mental breakdowns he says Yates has had since her first trial. Prosecutors may introduce evidence of conversations with inmates in which Yates reportedly talked about how to feign mental illness.

Yesterday, two Houston police officers who first arrived at the scene recounted what they saw and heard. Officer David Knapp said Yates came to the door "wide-eyed" and dripping wet. He found Yates' 7-year-old son, Noah, floating face-down in the tub.

Williford said that watery footprints suggested Noah had tried to run away.

On cross-examination, Knapp agreed with Parnham's description of Yates as unemotional and "flat as a pancake" when she told him, "I just killed my kids."

After finding Yates' four other children - John, 5; Paul, 3; Luke, 2; and Mary, 6 months - dead under a sheet on a bed, Officer Frank Stumpo said he returned to the living room where Yates sat quietly. Stumpo said he asked her if she realized what she had done. "Yes, I do," Stumpo said Yates replied.

Yates' ex-husband, Rusty, was in the courtroom for opening statements. He divorced Andrea Yates in March 2005.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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