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.

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.

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