Jury Finds Yates Legally Insane, Not Guilty in Children's Deaths

Times Staff Writer

Andrea Yates, who said she drowned her five children in the bathtub because she believed she was saving them from Satan, was found not guilty by reason of insanity Wednesday at her second murder trial.

The fact that Yates was mentally ill -- she said she believed she was possessed by the devil and that the media had planted bugs in her house to record her poor parenting -- was never in doubt during the four-week trial. Neither was the fact that she had killed the children: She called 911 minutes later and confessed.

But experts for the defense and prosecution disputed whether Yates was legally insane on the day of the killings. Under Texas law, defendants can be found innocent by reason of insanity only if the defense proves that they did not know right from wrong.

The jury, which deliberated over three days, found that the former high school valedictorian and nurse was not sane on the day five years ago that she waited until her husband went to work and then drowned her children, one by one. The killings stunned the nation and raised awareness of extreme postpartum depression.

Yates appeared shocked when the verdicts were read, and her supporters and family members began to weep behind her. Defense lawyers bowed their heads and tried to contain their emotions, while prosecutors stared straight ahead.

"I look at this and think: This all could have been avoided," Russell Yates, her former husband, said Wednesday. "Andrea was ordinarily a loving mother, who was crippled by disease.... Yes, she was psychotic on the day this happened."

Yates had a well-chronicled history of mental problems, which had led to several hospitalizations and at least two suicide attempts. A deeply religious woman, she believed she was failing to properly home-school her children in the Houston suburb of Clear Lake, and was haunted by visions that one of her sons would become a gay prostitute.

In 2002, a jury deliberated for less than four hours before finding her guilty of murdering her children. But the convictions were thrown out on appeal last year, because an expert witness for the prosecution who served as a consultant to the television drama "Law & Order" had testified that Yates may have gotten the idea to drown her children and plead insanity from an episode of the show. No such episode existed, and the court concluded the testimony might have prejudiced the jury.

However, the jury's decision to spare Yates the death penalty stood. So the only options available to jurors in the justconcluded trial were life in prison or treatment in a state mental hospital.

Prosecutors had charged Yates in the deaths of only three of her children: Noah, 7; John, 5; and Mary, 6 months -- leaving open the possibility that she could face further legal action for the deaths of Paul, 3, and Luke, 2.

"The right thing was done," defense lawyer George Parnham said after the verdicts. "This case is almost a watershed for mental illness in the criminal justice system."

Prosecutor Joseph Owmby said Wednesday that he was deeply disappointed by the verdicts. Though Yates was mentally ill, Owmby said, she understood that killing her children was legally wrong.

During closing arguments Monday, defense lawyers argued that although jurors might feel a primitive urge to punish Yates, they should pity a woman who was so tormented by mental illness that she killed her children out of a sense of "Mother knows best."

"My daddy taught me that you don't hit animals for no reason, and you don't punish crazy people for something they don't understand," lawyer Wendell Odom said, his voice quivering.

Prosecutors detailed the final moments of Yates' children, describing how they fought for their lives as their mother held them underwater. At one point, prosecutors said, Noah struggled to the surface and tried to blurt out an apology for whatever he had done.

Jurors were shown the pajamas the children were wearing when they died, and prosecutors presided over three minutes of silence in the courtroom to demonstrate how long the children probably suffered before losing consciousness.

During most of the trial, Yates sat ashen, her bangs hanging over her eyes. But when the prosecution on Monday described her deliberately killing her children, she cried forcefully, wiping her tears with a red bandana.

"There are things we could have done differently," Russell Yates said outside the courtroom after Wednesday's verdicts. He walked away from the television cameras and stepped into a driving rain.

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