Andrea Yates’ murder conviction for drowning her children in the bathtub was overturned by an appeals court Thursday because a psychiatrist for the prosecution gave erroneous testimony that suggested Yates got the idea from a non-existent episode of “Law & Order.”
The ruling by the state 1st District Court of Appeals means Yates is entitled to a new trial, though prosecutors said they would try to have the conviction reinstated.
The court based its reversal on false testimony by a prosecution witness, forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz, who stated during Yates’ trial in March 2002 that the killings occurred shortly after an episode of the NBC police drama in which a woman drowned her children and was acquitted by reason of insanity. (MSNBC is a joint venture of NBC Universal and Microsoft.)
Other witnesses testified that Yates watched the television series, allowing the prosecution to suggest that Yates had seen the show and used the plot to plan the murders of her children.
Jurors did not learn until after Yates was convicted that the episode never existed. They were informed before the sentencing phase of her trial, however, and rejected the death penalty.
Psychiatrist acknowledged error
Dietz, a nationally known authority who took part in the Jeffrey Dahmer and the Unabomber cases, was the lone mental health expert to testify for the prosecution, and he was the only one to say Yates knew right from wrong.
“His testimony was critical to establish the state’s case,” the appeals court said. “Although the record does not show that Dr. Dietz intentionally lied in his testimony, his false testimony undoubtedly gave greater weight to his opinion.”
In his testimony, Dietz said he was a consultant for the popular NBC series and added: “As a matter of fact, there was a show of a woman with postpartum depression who drowned her children in the bathtub and was found insane, and it was aired shortly before the crime occurred.”
Later, during closing arguments, a prosecutor referred to Dietz’s testimony to suggest that Yates learned from the TV show a way to escape responsibility for her actions. The prosecutor told the jury: “She watches ‘Law & Order’ regularly. She sees this program. There is a way out. She tells that to Dr. Dietz: A way out.”
The error in Dietz’s testimony became known to prosecutors and jurors before the sentencing phase in 2002. The defense asked for a mistrial because of it, but the judge refused. The jury ultimately spared her from the death penalty.
A receptionist at Dietz’s office in Newport Beach, Calif., said Thursday that neither Dietz nor his firm would comment on the ruling. In its ruling, the court noted that Dietz “acknowledged that he had made an error in his testimony.”
The defense argued that Yates, 40, who was under psychiatric care for postpartum depression, was insane at the time of the killings.
The appeal cited 19 alleged errors from her trial, but the appeals court said that because the false testimony issue reversed the conviction, it was not ruling on the other matters. Among other things, Yates attorneys had claimed that the Texas insanity standard was unconstitutional.
Prosecutors said they planned to appeal Thursday’s ruling.
“We fully intend to pursue a motion for a rehearing,” said Harris County Assistant District Attorney Alan Curry, who argued the case before the appeals court. “Barring that, we’ll continue to appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. We still believe we have a good shot to prevail in appeal.”
Prosecutors told the court last month that there was no evidence that Dietz intentionally lied and that the testimony was evoked by Yates’ defense attorney during cross-examination. They also argued that Dietz’s testimony was not material to the case and that there was plenty of other testimony about Yates’ plans to kill her children.
“We agree that this case does not involve the state’s knowing use of perjured testimony,” the appeals court said in its ruling. But the judges said prosecutors did use the testimony twice and referred to it in closing arguments.
Convicted in three deaths
On June 20, 2001, Yates drowned her five children one by one, then called police to her Houston home and showed them the bodies of Noah, 7, John, 5, Paul, 3, Luke, 2, and Mary, 6 months.
Jurors in 2002 sentenced Yates to life in prison in the deaths of three of the children. She was not tried in the deaths of the two others.
Yates was thrilled after learning of the ruling Thursday at the psychiatric prison where she is serving her sentence.
“She smiled and said she was basically just kind of in shock,” said Todd Foxworth, warden at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Skyview Unit, who delivered the news. “But she was very happy. Physically and mentally, she’s doing as well as I’ve ever seen her.”
Defense attorney George Parnham said he had no plans to seek her release from the prison about 140 miles north of Houston, where she works in the flower garden and has janitorial duties.
“Andrea is where she needs to be right now, as far as security is concerned for her,” he said. “The last thing Andrea needs, quite frankly from my perspective, is to walk from the TDCJ Skyview Unit into the public arena.”
NBC’s Dan Abrams and The Associated Press contributed to this report.