The Satanic Versus

At her retrial this summer, Andrea Yates once again insisted that the devil made her do it. In a way, the devil did.

September 2006By Comments

WHEN I DROPPED IN ON THIS SUMMER’S retrial of Andrea Yates at the Harris County courthouse, two rows of the courtroom were taken up by a group of Chinese law students visiting from Shanghai. They were spending part of their summer in Texas with the hope of getting a glimpse of American justice at work.

A door opened, and in came Yates, escorted by a bailiff. The Chinese students began craning their heads to get a good look at her. “Andrea Yates, Andrea Yates,” they whispered excitedly.

“Can you believe it?” said a Court TV producer sitting beside me. “Even the Chinese know about her.”

I smirked, but the truth was that I couldn’t take my eyes off of her either. She was probably thirty pounds heavier than when I last saw her. Her hair was thicker. She smiled—awkwardly, briefly, but smiled nonetheless—at her attorneys, which she had never done at her first trial. Then, after listening to some testimony about that sunny morning when she calmly opened the door to her home and allowed a Houston police officer to come inside to view her five children, whom she had just drowned in a bathtub, she did something that she had also never done before, at least in public: She dropped her head and wept silently, her lips trembling and her eyes blinking quickly behind her wire-rimmed glasses.

For the past five years, a lot of very smart people have studied Yates, our modern-day Medea. High-priced psychiatrists have trooped in from around the country to analyze her. Scholars at major universities have written long academic papers about her life. (My favorite: “The Conviction of Andrea Yates: A Narrative of Denial,” printed in the Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy.) Journalists, of course, have had a field day with the story, publishing countless articles about everything from her days as a high school valedictorian and swim team champion to her years as a loving mother and devout Christian to her first suicide attempts and on and on and on.

Yet for all that’s been written, there is little agreement on one crucial issue: What was going on in Yates’s mind on June 20, 2001? Was she, as some psychiatrists believe, completely insane on that day, so convinced that she and her children were under Satan’s control that she felt she had to murder them while they were still innocent so that they would end up in heaven? Or was she, as others claim, nothing more than a clinically depressed woman who had been thinking about killing her kids for two years?

At her first trial, in 2002, jurors were so outraged by the way she’d carefully planned and then methodically carried out the drownings that they needed just three and a half hours of deliberations to convict her of capital murder. The prosecution’s key witness, the famous California forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz, testified that Yates was not only overwhelmed by her responsibilities as mother and wife but that she had become even more depressed than usual in the months before the murders because of the death of her father. Yes, said Dietz, who charged the Harris County district attorney’s office $150,000 for his services, Yates suffered from mental illness, but she was hardly delusional and certainly did not fit Texas’s legal definition of insanity (someone unable to understand that his or her criminal behavior is wrong).

Dietz also mentioned, without prompting, that the TV show Law & Order, for which he had consulted, had aired an episode about a woman who’d drowned her children in a bathtub and then avoided prison by claiming insanity. The episode, he said, was broadcast prior to the murders of the Yates kids, which led prosecutor Joe Owmby to suggest in his closing arguments that television, not Satan, had inspired Yates to do what she’d done.

And that seemed to be that—until Suzanne O’Malley, a journalist who was writing a book on the case, learned that Law & Order had never aired such an episode. In 2005 an appeals court ordered a new trial for Yates, declaring that Dietz’s “false testimony” had affected “the judgment of the jury.”

I wasn’t sure if the second trial would change anyone’s opinion about Yates. Based on what I heard whenever I said her name, people were evenly divided between hating her and feeling sorry for her. I wasn’t sure what to think myself. At the first trial, I had been horrified by much of the evidence that her attorneys, George Parnham and Wendell Odom, had presented about her slow descent into mental illness and the inability (or unwillingness) of the medical community to stop it. I was furious at the doctor who just weeks before the drownings had taken her off Haldol, the one medication that had been keeping her stable, because he said he could see no signs of psychosis in her. I was also utterly baffled at the decision made by Yates and her husband, Rusty, a NASA engineer, to have one more child in 2000 even though a psychiatrist had told them that Andrea would almost certainly develop a case of postpartum psychosis.

But I also agreed with Kaylynn Williford, the other prosecutor in the case, who said that if a man had committed such a crime, even a mentally ill man, everyone in Texas would be clamoring for the death penalty. What’s more, like the jurors in the first trial, I had a lot of trouble with Yates’s actions on the day of the murders. If she had actually believed she was doing good by saving her children from damnation, why didn’t she say that to the police? Why didn’t she say it to anyone until a few days after the murders, when she was on suicide watch, confined to a bare cement-block cell, and taking medication (given to her by a jailhouse psychiatrist) that reportedly triggered hallucinations? Was it possible, as Dietz testified, that her satanic delusions really didn’t take hold of her until after the murders?

Although the new trial did not draw the same media attention as the first one, a line of spectators waited each morning to get a seat in the courtroom, several of them women who were sympathetic to Yates. One woman told me she had driven down from Wichita Falls to attend the trial because she wanted Yates to know that “some people out there understand the anguish she has endured.”

Rusty also regularly showed up at the courthouse. I was surprised to see him. Now 41, he is recently remarried—his new wife is a pretty, blond mother who also worked at NASA—and I’ve heard him say in interviews that the time has come for him to move on in his personal life. But at the trial, he told some reporters, “I will always be here for Andrea. We shared years together. We shared a family. It’s time to stop punishing her just because she was sick.” When he was asked, as he always is when reporters are around, if he would have taken care of her any differently if he could have done it all over again—to this day you can find people who believe he should have been charged with negligent homicide for impregnating her yet again or for leaving her alone with the children—he said, with a pained expression on his face, “Yes, I would have done some things differently. But no one ever suggested to me that she might be a danger to our kids. No one.”

There had been some talk that, this time around, Yates had a better shot at a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity because her first trial had gone a long way in heightening the public’s understanding of mental illness. But Owmby and Williford were so determined to win a second conviction that they decided to bring back Dietz to testify about everything he had said in the first trial—except, of course, the Law & Order anecdote. (Interestingly enough, Dietz said that he should not be faulted for that story. The information, he insisted, had been supplied to him by the district attorney’s office.)

The prosecutors also spent around $200,000 more of Harris County’s money to hire a second well-known forensic psychiatrist, Michael Welner, of New York, to offer his opinions on Yates. Welner studied her records and spent fourteen hours in May interviewing her. He then sent the prosecutors a stunning report claiming that she was not insane but depraved. She had selfishly murdered her children, he said, not only because she wanted to reduce the stress in her life but also because she wanted to reconnect with Rusty, whom she felt she had been failing.

On the day Welner testified, the courtroom was packed with people who wanted to see the video of his interview with Yates. The camera focused on her sitting quietly at a table. She was wearing a patterned shirt and blue jeans. Compared with the taped interviews she had given to psychiatrists in 2001, she did not look remotely wild-eyed or disoriented. When Welner sneezed, she said “Bless you” in a gentle, modulated voice. Apparently, the five years of intensive therapy and constant medication had stabilized her.

But then Welner asked her why she had drowned her children. There was a long silence—at least thirty seconds. She pressed her lips together. Her shoulders began to sag. Finally, she said, “Because I was a bad mother.”

Welner asked why she felt she needed to drown each child. Another long silence. She held out her hands. “The sadness,” she said. “The sadness in the house. It was just so terrible.” She told him that she knew all of her children were doomed. Five-year-old John, she said, was destined to become “a serial killer,” and three-year-old Paul was on his way to becoming “a mute homosexual prostitute.” The other children, she added, “would die tragic deaths.”

She held out her hands again and sobbed. “I didn’t want my kids to go to hell,” she said.

I looked over at the jurors. They were staring intently at the video screen as they watched Yates struggle to answer Welner’s questions. When he asked her to describe the drowning of her eldest son, Noah, she said, “He came up out of the water and said, ‘Mommy,’ and then I put him back in the water.” She then said that on the evening of the arrest, “I had visions of being bound and somebody peeling my skin away … I had visions of Jesus hanging upside down on the cross. And I had visions that Noah was Christ and had come back to earth.”

“What would you say to your children if you saw them today?” Welner asked.

“I miss you,” Yates replied. “I miss Mary [her youngest child]. I feel especially bad about Mary, because I didn’t know her well.”

I looked over at the prosecutors and wondered if they realized that these video clips were having exactly the opposite effect on the jury that they’d intended. The jurors—and just about everyone else in the courtroom, for that matter—were not getting a glimpse of a deranged, cold-blooded murderer. Instead, they were seeing a desperately tormented woman who was still unable to come to grips with her own insanity. As jury foreman Todd Frank later said, “She needs help. Although she’s treated, I think she’s worse than she was before.”

After the judge announced that the jury had found her not guilty by reason of insanity and that she would be sent to a state mental hospital instead of to prison, Yates looked at Parnham, her attorney, with a confused expression. “This means you’re going to get better,” he said.

He knows, of course, that it won’t be easy. “The healthier Andrea’s mind gets, the more pain she feels about what she did,” he told me. “I know some people are angry, thinking she’s going to get out of the hospital and return to the community. But it will be up to the doctors as to whether she will ever leave. She lives in a kind of hell.”

If that’s true, and she spends the rest of her days at a state hospital, she at least has the comfort of knowing where she’ll end up. In March 2005 Rusty agreed to give her the burial plot he had bought back in 2001—the one that is right next to the graves of their children. “That was very important to her, to know that she someday would be with her kids again,” said Parnham. “That she would someday be with the kids she loved.”

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