Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Andrea Yates: Ill or Evil?


On June 22, Andrea appeared before Judge Belinda Hill and listened to prosecutor Kaylynn Williford state the case against her.   It was Williford's first capital case and she went at it with all she had.  Andrea then quietly said that she did not have an attorney.  The judge appointed public defender Bob Scott, who requested a gag order.  The county prosecutor's office had not yet said whether they would seek the death penalty, but Williford and her partner, Joseph Owmby, told the press that they did not intend to make their decisions public.  Owmby said that it was the most horrendous case he'd ever seen.

Andrea Yates prison ID
Andrea Yates prison ID

Rusty looked for an attorney to take Andrea's case.   He talked with family friend, George Parnham, who agreed to get involved.  His first act was to get family members in to see Andrea.  Spencer describes the initial meeting between Rusty and Andrea, according to Rusty.  Andrea's first words were, "You will be greatly rewarded."  She rejected the attorney and told Rusty to "Have a nice life."  He was completely confused.  Later he found out that she had been given a sedative.

Wendell Odom came on the case to assist Parnham, and he said that all Andrea asked when he sat with her was what kind of plea they were going to enter and insisted she did not want to plead not guilty.   He watched her, with her sunken eyes and hair hanging over her face, and believed she might not even be competent to stand trial.  She had said that she heard the voice of Satan coming out of the walls of her cell.  Dr. Lucy Puryear, a psychiatrist from the Baylor College of Medicine, said on Court TV's Mugshots program "She was the sickest person I had ever seen in my life."  In those early days, Andrea was unbathed, dressed in an orange prison uniform, and seemingly unaware of what was going on around her.  She was shaking, and every now and then she absently scratched at her head.  Puryear believed she was suffering from postpartum psychosis.

Andrea's medical records were subpoenaed from the Devereux Texas Treatment Network, where she'd last been seen.

While postpartum depression occurs in up to twenty percent of women who have children, psychotic manifestations are much more rare, and thus much less understood.   Only one in five hundred births result in the mother's postpartum psychosis, says forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner.  Unlike in Britain, where the mental health system watches mothers for months afterward for signs of depression and mood swings, people in America have a difficult time understanding how hormonal shifts can actually cause violent hallucinations and thoughts.  Such women can become incoherent, paranoid, irrational, and delusional.  They may have outright hallucinations, and are at risk of committing suicide or harming their child—particularly "for the child's own good."  The woman herself will not recognize it as an illness, so those countries that have programs for it generally advise immediate hospitalization.

A psychiatric examination was ordered for Andrea. One psychiatrist, featured on Mugshots, asked Andrea what she thought would happen to the children.   She indicated that she believed God would "take them up."  He reversed the question and asked what might have happened if she had not taken their lives. 

"I guess they would have continued stumbling," which meant "they would have gone to hell."

He wanted to know specifically what they had done to give her the idea they weren't behaving properly.   She responded that they didn't treat Rusty's mother well, adding that, "They didn't do things God likes."

Five days later, on the day of the children's funeral, the judge issued a gag order, effectively ending information leaking to the press.   For the time being, anyway.  Items kept leaking out.

Russell Yates
Russell Yates

Time reporter Michelle McCalope attended the June 27 funeral for the five children at Clear Lake Church of Christ and published an account of the service.  Rusty looked tired and grim in the unbearable humidity.  He looked at the small cream-colored caskets, open for viewing, and placed Mary's favorite blanket inside hers.  The baby was dressed in pink.  Rusty cried as he spoke his final words to her.  He did the same at each of the other four open coffins, telling them they were now in good hands and placing some favorite item inside.

He gave a half-hour eulogy that addressed each child's personality and offered family stories.   He had a projector on which he showed pictures of the children, happy and having fun.  Then he offered some scriptures, saying that what had happened was God's will.  At the end, he sat down, clearly still in shock.

Andrea's relatives attended as well.

By June 28, a staff writer for ABC News predicted what might happen to Yates.   While juries tend to punish the killing of strangers harshly, they often are more lenient with mothers.  Juries have a difficult time in America sending a mother to lethal gas or the electric chair.  In 2000, Christina Riggs was a notable exception.  She killed her two children in a suicide attempt, and was put to death in Arkansas.  At the time of the article, there were eight other women on death row, yet approximately 180 children are murdered annually by their mothers. 

Typically, a woman has a believably tragic story to go along with her deed, although some like Mary Beth Tinning, Susan Smith, and Marie Noe turned out to have killed for reasons other than their initial excuses.  Thus, excuses become suspicious.  And sometimes an act is so overwhelming that no mental condition seems to count as a reasonable explanation.

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