Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Andrea Yates: Ill or Evil?

Legal Maneuvers

On October 30, Parnham and Odom filed nearly three-dozen pre-trial motions, including a rather crucial request that the Court reconsider a procedure in the Texas Criminal Code that prohibited jurors from learning that a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI) was not an outright acquittal.   It involved sending the person to a mental institution for treatment and periodic re-evaluation.  Those defendants did not just walk free.  The attorneys believed that such knowledge could play a strong role in how the jury made a decision in this case. 

The two attorneys also wanted Yates's confession thrown out because she had not been competent to waive her rights and they asked the Court to declare the insanity plea, as it was stated in Texas law, to be unconstitutional, because it was not in touch with what we now know about the true nature of mental illness.

In November, the prosecution's psychiatrist, Dr. Park Dietz, came to interview Andrea.   A nationally prominent psychiatrist who consulted for the FBI and worked on such cases as serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and Susan Smith (who also drowned her children), he generally only worked for the prosecution.  He had limited knowledge of postpartum depression. 

Dr. Park Dietz testifies in court
Dr. Park Dietz testifies in court

The interview was taped, and after the trial it was released to the public.   Andrea told Dietz that at the time of the killings in June, Satan was inside her, giving her directions.  "I was pretty determined," she admitted, "to do what Satan told me to do."  She also indicated that she felt that by killing her children before they went downhill morally, she was ensuring they would get into heaven.  That's the only place where they would be safe.  Dietz asked her several times whether she knew that what she had done was wrong and she answered yes.  She had planned for at least a month to kill them at some point when she was alone with them.   

December was a difficult month.   Andrea's lawyers tried to fight the capital murder charge, and failed.  While they were granted a number of motions, they did not get those they felt were most crucial.  In particular, the jury would not learn that in the event of an NGRI verdict, Andrea would go into treatment.

Both Rusty and the police officers who had gone to the scene testified at a hearing.   The judge ruled that Andrea's 911 call and her confession would be admissible.  Rusty had spoken out in September, violating the gag order, and his 60 Minutes interview was broadcast on December 9.  A special independent prosecutor was appointed to probe the violation by both Rusty and DA Rosenthal, but the talk was that he would delay it until after the trial, which was fast approaching.  By the end of the trial, the issue would be moot.

Jury selection began on January 7, 2002.   It took a week, and in the end, eight women and four men were seated.  Seven had children and two had degrees in psychology.  They were "death qualified."  The trial date was set for February.

Andrea would have to prove that on the morning when she had drowned her children she'd had a mental disease or defect that prohibited her from understanding that what she had done was wrong.   Since she was claiming that she did indeed know that it was wrong, the attorneys needed experts who could prove that her manner of processing this information was in itself rooted in psychosis.  Not only did they have to meet one of the most restrictive standards in the country for insanity, they had to educate the jury in ideas about mental illness that were rife among the public with stereotypes and misperception and to help them get beyond the literal interpretation of "right" and "wrong."  A mock trial that the defense had tried had already shown them that a jury in their area might have a difficult time accepting that someone can confess to such a crime and not understand what she had done.

They had to present a very strong case.

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