Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Andrea Yates: Ill or Evil?

Legal Decisions

On July 31, a Houston grand jury indicted Andrea Yates for capital murder in the cases of Noah, John, and Mary.  Because she had killed someone under the age of six and had killed more than one person, she was eligible for the death penalty.  There was talk that the prosecutors would keep the other two deaths as fallback, in case they did not get convictions.  Judge Hill ordered a third psychiatric examination, with the results due before Yates'   arraignment.

A deteriorating Andrea went to court on August 8 to enter an insanity defense.   She was even thinner now than she had been in June, although she had been medicated with Haldol, the only drug that had worked for her.  A rudimentary psychological report done for the court indicated that she was competent to stand trial.  But Parnham and Odom weren't content.  They wanted a jury to make that determination, since their own psychiatrists had concluded that she was not competent.  In other words, she was not able to participate in her own defense with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and comprehension of the court proceedings.

Defense attorney George Parnham
Defense attorney George Parnham

The judge granted their request to look at the medical testimony that Dr. Saeed's gave to the grand jury and set a date for a competency hearing.   She granted the prosecution's request to have their own experts examine Andrea.

The next day, the prosecutors stated that they would be seeking the death penalty.   No one was allowed to comment publicly, not even Rusty.  Yet on September 5, he met with Ed Bradley from 60 Minutes to answer questions.  He turned over videos of the children and talked about Andrea, but shied away from his feelings about the forthcoming trial.  He was also prepared to answer questions for Time magazine and anticipated that they would come out after the hearing.  He had hired an attorney, Edward Mallett, to fight the gag order.  At some point during the hearing, DA Chuck Rosenthal spoke with the 60 Minutes crew as well.

Suzy Spencer's Breaking Point
Suzy Spencer's Breaking Point

On September 18 (postponed one week due to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.), a jury selection began for the competency proceeding.   Eleven women and one man were selected.  In Breaking Point, Spencer gives a comprehensive account of the proceedings.

Andrea's attorneys filed hundreds of pages of documentation on her history of mental illness.   Their experts claimed she was not ready, while the prosecution experts were about to declare her competent.  Andrea's mother and siblings were subpoenaed, as were several jail employees.  The lawyers argued over the State's psychologist seeing Andrea without the defense's knowledge, and the judge made a ruling that the information could not be used—although toward the end of the hearing, it was.

Parnham called Dr. Gerald Harris, a clinical psychologist who had interviewed Andrea in prison on four occasions.   On June 25, she had shown signs of psychosis and hallucinations.  She said she had seen Satan in her cell and he was talking to her.  She had a difficult time processing Harris's questions and sometimes did not seem to hear them at all.  She did make it clear that she wanted to be executed so that she and Satan, who possessed her, would be destroyed.  She had insisted that she would not enter a plea of not guilty.  She did not need an attorney, and she wanted her hair cut into the shape of a crown.  She believed the number of the Antichrist, 666, was imprinted on her scalp.

By the end of August, on medication, she was much improved.   She reported no hallucinations and was able to hold a conversation.  She still had delusions about Satan but insisted she was not mentally ill.  Her intelligence was above average, but she had difficulty remembering things—an important issue for competency.  She believed that Satan lived inside her and the way to be rid of him was for her to be killed.

Andrea Yates in court, much improved by medication
Andrea Yates in court.

Dr Lauren Marangell, an expert on depression, testified about changes in the brain during different psychological states.   She also provided a map of Andrea's psychotic episodes since 1999.  She concluded that Andrea would be competent in the foreseeable future, with continued treatment.

The prosecutors took their witnesses—mostly prison staff—over the thirteen points involved in assessing competency.   Then they questioned Dr. Steve Rubenzer, who had spent over ten hours with the defendant and who had administered a competency examination on several successive occasions—the very assessments that were in dispute because they were done without Parnham's knowledge.  It was his opinion that the defendant's comprehension had improved over time and that she did pass the state's competency stipulations.   However, he believed that Andrea Yates did have a serious mental illness and he thought her psychotic features were only in partial remission.

Under cross-examination, he admitted that she believed that Satan inhabited her and that Governor Bush would destroy him.   But Bush had not been the governor of Texas at that time.

Two more mental health experts testified, and while they were divided on the competency issue, all recognized psychosis in Andrea's condition and no one thought she was malingering.

On September 24, the jury deemed Andrea Pia Yates competent to stand trial.   The defense quickly prepared motions. 

Now it was time for both sides to learn more about who she was, what her mental health history was, the quality of her marriage, and what factors had been involved in her fateful decision.

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