Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Andrea Yates: Ill or Evil?

New Chapter - An Honest Mistake?

On January 6, 2005, nearly three years after jurors sentenced Andrea Yates to life in prison, an appeals court overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial.  While Yates' attorneys had appealed on nineteen separate legal grounds, including the claim that the Texas insanity standard is unconstitutional, the item that got the court's attention involved the testimony of Dr. Park Dietz, a prosecution psychiatrist.  He apparently made a false statement, which figured into the way the case was presented to the jury.  Who was actually to blame for this testimony is still a bit of a mystery, but the end result is that the three-judge panel of the First Appeals Court in Houston decided that the erroneous statements may have precipitated a miscarriage of justice.

Dr. Park Dietz
Dr. Park Dietz
Essentially, it appears that the prosecution was attempting to show that Andrea Yates had seen an episode of the popular crime show, Law and Order, in which a woman had drowned her children, and this had given her the idea that she could kill her own children and feign mental illness.  That character had supposedly been found not guilty by reason of insanity, and the episode was said to have aired not long before Yates drowned her children.  Evidence was offered that Yates was a regular viewer and it was surmised that she may have seen the story and related it to her own situation: She was a beleaguered mother seeking a way out.  And that's how the prosecution presented it.

But no such episode ever aired.  Yates never saw a woman kill her children and thus could not have devised a copy-cat killing with a plan to fake an illness.  (In fact, her years of coping with mental illness were well-documented and attested to by numerous mental health experts.)  So the case presented by the prosecution was based on an idea with no factual basis.  With a defendant's very life at stake, how did it happen?  The stories are mixed. indicated that after the appeals court decision, when Dietz was asked about his testimony, he called it an "honest mistake."  He apparently indicated, according to this report, that he got the information about the episode from a conversation with the prosecution.  Yet in the same article, Yates prosecutor Joe Owmby said that he asked Dietz whether the show had ever dealt with such a case and then dropped the subject until Yates' attorneys asked about it later.  He did not believe that his request had caused the false testimony.  Still, the story grew.

According to the Houston Chronicle, before the trial a local woman had sent the Harris County district attorney's office an e-mail indicating that reruns of a show called L. A. Law had featured an episode with this plot.  It seems that the prosecution team might have confused the two shows while discussing the case with Dietz, but a writer attending the trial who heard Dietz's statement called the producers of Law and Order and told defense attorney George Parnham that Dietz was in error.  Dietz said that he, too, attempted to correct the error by consulting with producers.  He stated that he immediately researched the matter and sent an e-mail to the prosecutors, offering to return at his own expense.  The letter was dated March 14, 2002, indicating that Dietz had confused an episode based on Susan Smith and an episode inspired by prom mom Melissa Drexler and the case involving Amy Grossberg.  However, his letter did not get into evidence.

Jurors were told about the confusion before sentencing, but the appeals court still considered the original testimony legally problematic, especially since it was mentioned in the closing argument.  While it's not clear who is to blame for allowing the incorrect testimony to become part of the trial record and jury deliberations, appeals courts are set up for just such occurrences.  According to the Associated Press, the appeals court ruled thus: "We conclude that there is reasonable likelihood that Dr. Dietz's false testimony could have affected the judgment of the jury.  We further conclude that Dr. Dietz's false testimony affected the substantial rights of appellant." 

Prosecutors insisted that the state did not knowingly rely on incorrect testimony, while also pointing out before the panel that Dietz's testimony, even if wrong, was not material to the case, as they had other ways of showing that Yates had planned to kill her children.  The appeals court agreed, but since the prosecution had referred to the testimony in making its case, including mentioning it during the closing argument, it may well have influenced the jury's perception.

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