Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Andrea Yates: Ill or Evil?

The Case Against Her

Andrea Yates was being tried on two counts of capital murder—one for the two older boys and one for Mary.   Because it had caught the nation's attention and because it was so controversial, her case was to become a high-profile arena for the battle of medical experts. 

Opening statements began on February 18.   The prosecution claimed that Andrea Yates had drowned her five children and had known it was illegal and wrong.  There would be plenty of signs supporting that.  For example, she waited until her husband had gone to work so he would not stop her, she prepared for it, she was methodical, and she called the police afterward.  Owmby and Williford wanted to keep the jury focused on whether she knew right from wrong at the time of the offense.  Her mental illness, they would insist, was not relevant to that.

Prosecutor Joseph Owmby
Prosecutor Joseph Owmby

The defense said that she did not know what she was doing because she had been legally insane.   She'd been suffering from postpartum depression with psychotic features and her delusions had driven her to kill her children.  Her illness, said Parnham, "was so severe, so longstanding that Andrea Yates' ability to think in abstract terms, to give narrative responses, to be able to connect the dots was impaired."  He explained that it was important that they not give the impression to the jury that they were claiming a "devil made me do it" defense.  They were trying to indicate the disordered nature of Andrea's thinking.

In other words, the primary question in this case was whether Yates had killed the children while in a state of disabling psychosis or had knowingly done it to escape a life she hated or to punish her husband.

The real problem for the defense was that medication had stabilized Andrea over the eight months since the crimes had occurred and in court she appeared to be normal---a far cry from her initial prison interview on the day of the crime.   Yet they ethically could not have withheld medication for demonstration purposes.  It was a dilemma.

The prosecution laid out its case first, with the 911 call, the testimony of police officers who responded to the scene, Andrea's prison confession, and with autopsy reports from medical examiners.   Jurors heard about how one child had strands of his mother's hair clamped in his little fist.  They showed photos and home videos of the children, while Andrea cried. 

Andrea's mother-in-law then took the stand and discussed her observations of "her precious daughter-in-law" during the time she had been helping with the children.   Mrs. Yates described Andrea as nearly catatonic, staring into space, and did not think she was aware of what she was doing when she killed the children.  She was a better witness for the defense, it seemed.

The prosecutors entered the children's pajamas into evidence, over Parnham's insistent protest, to "show" how much smaller these children were than their mother.   Parnham believed it was merely to inflame the jury, but Judge Hill sided with Owmby.  He then worked hard at proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Andrea Pia Yates had knowingly murdered her children.

After three days, the prosecution rested and the defense called its first witness.

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