HOUSTON — In a dramatic turnaround from her first murder trial, Andrea Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity Wednesday in the drowning of her children in the bathtub.
The 42-year-old woman will be committed to a state mental hospital and held until she is no longer deemed a threat. If she had been convicted of murder, she would have been sentenced to life in prison.
Yates stared wide-eyed as the verdict was read. She then bowed her head and wept quietly. Her relatives also shed tears, and the children’s father, Rusty Yates, muttered, “Wow!” as he, too, cried.
Four years ago, another jury convicted Yates of murder, rejecting claims that she was so psychotic she thought she was saving her children’s souls by killing them. An appeals court overturned the convictions because of erroneous testimony from a prosecution witness.
Yates’ chief attorney, George Parnham, called the verdict this time a “watershed event in the treatment of mental illness.”
Yates’ 2002 conviction triggered debate over whether Texas’ legal standard for mental illness was too rigid, whether the courts treated postpartum depression seriously enough, and whether a mother who kills could ever find sympathy and understanding in a tough-on-crime state like Texas.
Yates drowned 6-month-old Mary, 2-year-old Luke, 3-year-old Paul, 5-year-old John and 7-year-old Noah in their Houston-area home in June 2001. Her attorneys said she suffered from severe postpartum psychosis and, in a delusional state, believed that Satan was inside her and that killing the youngsters would save them from hell.
“The jury looked past what happened and looked at why it happened,” Rusty Yates, who divorced his wife last year, said outside the courthouse. “Yes, she was psychotic. That’s the whole truth.”
Prosecutors had maintained that Yates failed to meet the state’s definition of insanity: that she was so severely mentally ill that she did not know her actions were wrong.
“I’m very disappointed,” prosecutor Kaylynn Williford said. “For five years, we’ve tried to seek justice for these children.”
The jury, split evenly between men and women, deliberated for about 13 hours over three days. The jurors had not been told that Yates would be committed to a mental institution if found not guilty.
Yates did not testify. Her lawyers presented much of the same evidence as in the first trial, including half a dozen psychiatrists who testified that Yates was insane.
During a videotaped 2001 jail interview, Yates told a psychiatrist that her children had not been progressing normally because she was a bad mother, and that she killed them because “in their innocence, they would go to heaven.”
The jury was told about Yates’ two hospitalizations after two suicide attempts in 1999, and about her stays in a mental hospital a few months before the drownings.
But prosecution witness Dr. Michael Welner, a forensic psychiatrist, testified that Yates killed the youngsters because she felt overwhelmed and inadequate as a mother, not to save their souls. He said that it was not until a day after the killings that she talked about Satan and saving her children from hell.
Welner also said Yates showed that she knew her actions were wrong by waiting until her husband left for work to kill them, covering the bodies with a sheet and calling 911 soon after the crime.
Yates’ 2002 conviction was overturned after Dr. Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist, told the jury that before the drownings, NBC ran a “Law & Order” episode about a woman who was acquitted by reason of insanity after drowning her children. It was later learned that no such episode existed.
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