Out-of-state experts shortchanged Andrea Yates; didn’t know Texas law
In the City of Rusk in Cherokee County in deep east Texas, the azaleas have dropped their flowers but the bluebonnets line rural highways. From the walls of the Skyview Unit of the Texas Department of Corrections, Andrea Yates cannot see the bluebonnets or the azaleas. She will see the flower blooms only behind two 20 foot high chain link fences topped by razor wire.
On June 20 last year, we heard early radio reports of a mother who had drowned her five children. On television that evening we saw pictures of this mother, Andrea Yates, her stringy dark hair hiding her face, being taken from her home and later led into court in shackles. We saw her husband, Russell, a perpetual look of surprise that never seemed to leave his face, not grieving the way we expect from a parent who has lost five children.
Chuck Rosenthal, recently elected as district attorney of Harris County that has sent more criminals to death row than most states have, rapidly chose to file capital murder charges against this woman, citing that he was dealing with five dead children. Joe Owmby and Kaylynn Williford, both veteran attorneys, were assigned as the prosecution team.
We soon heard stories that this woman had a significant psychiatric history with numerous hospitalizations and long history of outpatient treatment. Just as I did, I am certain that many practitioners examined their patient records to see if they had treated this woman. We found out that Dr. Saeed, the psychiatrist who was treating Mrs. Yates, had discontinued her neuroleptic medication only two weeks before she drowned the children. We all second‑guessed that decision.
Most of use cannot fathom anyone doing what she did and yet it was not unique. We have had well over a dozen women in Houston over the past 15 years who have killed their children with outcomes ranging from 10 years probation to a sentence of 62 years. Did these women have postpartum depression? Certainly they suffered from some mental illness.
We watched as the prosecution and defense teams began their work, lining up their fact witnesses and their experts. Judge Belinda Hill, the district court judge assigned to the case, imposed a gag order, which some said was overly broad but which kept the trial from becoming a media circus that sensational trials in other states have become. She won local praise for her efforts at running a speedy, fair trial.
The competency issue was settled in the fall. Andrea Yates, through the use of psychotropic medication, was able to understand what she was charged with doing and able to assist her attorneys in her defense. Melissa Ferguson, M.D., who works at the Harris County jail, and Lucy Puryear, M.D., Houston’s local expert on postpartum depression, were able to find the combination of medications to bring Mrs. Yates’ psychosis under control. Ironically, Mrs. Yates may have received better care of her psychiatric condition as an inmate than she received as a wife and mother in the free world.
The Texas law on insanity is based solely on a cognitive test, whether the defendant, “… as a result of severe mental disease or defect, did not know that his conduct was wrong.” When John W. Hinckley attempted to assassinate Ronald Reagan and was placed in St. Elizabeth’s rather than being convicted and put in jail, Texas along with the federal government (Insanity Defense Reform Act, 1984) and several other states removed the volitional prong of the insanity test. This change removed the provision that someone could claim insanity as a defense when they could not conform their conduct to the requirements of the law, the irresistible impulse test.
For the past 18 years, we have relied solely upon the cognitive test of insanity. There is no question that Andrea Yates had a severe and persistent mental disease. She had been troubled for years, diagnosed, treated, and hospitalized repeatedly. Once the capital murder charges were filed, there was no doubt that George Parnham and Wendell Odom, her defense team, would use an insanity defense.
Local mental health professionals watched as the two sides chose their experts: Phil Resnick, M.D., for the defense and Park Dietz, M.D., for the prosecution, two famous forensic mental health experts. Neither expert, however, did their sides any favors in their testimony. Dr. Resnick, for example, told the jury that Mrs. Yates knew her actions were illegal but that she did not think that it was wrong to drown her children, since she was saving the children from the devil. With those simple words he gave the jury all that was needed for a conviction.
Psychiatrist conceded error
In his turn, Dr. Dietz, when asked if he had ever consulted on any television programs in which womenÆs health was an issue, replied that he had consulted on an episode of Law and Order in which a woman drowned her children and been acquitted by reason of insanity. He also testified that this episode was aired just a few weeks before Andrea Yates drowned her children. Somehow the jury was left with this television program as a possible blueprint or perhaps a motivator for her actions. Dr. Dietz
knew that Ms. Yates routinely watched Law and Order and the jury knew this. Soon after this testimony, the producers of Law and Order informed Dr. Dietz that no such episode ever occurred. Dr. Dietz wrote a letter to the prosecutors two days after his testimony saying that his testimony was in error. In this letter he defended the producers of the show as socially responsible but did not apologize to the court for his misstatements. The defense team did not find out about this blatantly erroneous testimony until after the guilty verdict was rendered.
Dr. Dietz also used information obtained during the competency examination as part of his 100‑page report to the court and his testimony. Texas law states, “No statement made by the defendant during the examination or hearing on his competency to stand trial may be admitted in evidence against the defendant on the issue of guilt in any criminal proceeding” (Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, Art. 46.02 Sec. 4(g)).
The testimony of these experts raises the issue of using experts from outside the jurisdiction, since neither of the experts seemed to understand certain aspects of procedural and substantive law in Texas. You would think that someone who is getting paid $500 per hour, as Park Dietz was, would take the time to learn local law in order not to mess up a case involving life and death, making a beginner’s mistake, not something to expect of a seasoned courtroom veteran.
The guilty verdict
When the verdict was read the family cried. Russell Yates lowered his head unbelieving that his wife was convicted. Lucy Puryear, Mrs. Yates’ psychiatrist, cried when she heard the verdict.
It was obvious that Joe Owmby did not want to pursue the death penalty in this case after the guilty verdict. During the punishment phase of the trial only the defense called witnesses. The State called none and Joe Owmby asked only two questions during the proceedings. The jury took slightly over 30 minutes to decide that Ms. Yates would spend life in prison rather than being put to death. A life sentence in Texas means imprisonment for a minimum of 40 years before parole eligibility.
A few days later, Judge Hill pronounced the formal sentence. None of the family attended that formal proceeding. Russell Yates was on his way to New York for a television appearance. He missed a jury summons that day but no one believed that he would have been placed on a jury after his recent experiences.
Wendell Odom filed notice of appeal in April, the first step in that long process. We expect the appeal will be based, in part, on the erroneous testimony of Park Dietz for supplying a motive for Ms. Yates’ actions based on a television show that never occurred and the use of information obtained in the competency examination during the guilt phase of the trial.
There is also likely to be an appeal to the use of jury selection that empanels death qualified jurors, citizens who are more likely to find someone guilty and more likely to impose longer sentences than jurors who are not death qualified. Some research suggests that jurors selected to be death qualified will see things the way the state wants them to be seen. This is an area that has received a lot of study over the years by psychologists and social scientists. Perhaps it is an area ready for change to a more balanced jury that represents a true cross section of the community, a right guaranteed by the Fifth and Sixth Amendments of the Constitution.
Once the punishment was announced I started receiving telephone calls from professionals wanting to know what could be done about this. As Wendell Odom said in closing argument if there was any case that deserved an insanity verdict this is it. I encouraged those professionals who were upset by the verdict to lobby their professional associations to pursue a change in the law, allowing consideration of volitional control as a defense or allowing postpartum depression as a defense, as it is in the United Kingdom. We will see in the next session of the Texas Legislature whether those groups can reach consensus and be persuasive for a change in our laws. It is said that hard cases make bad laws. The Hinckley case certainly illustrates that we cannot anticipate the consequences of our actions. No one can say whether Ms. Yates would have been not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to a mental health facility instead of a prison if the Texas law had not changed, but the possibility seems desirable.
This matter is not resolved. In addition to the appeals for Mrs. Yates, her family has filed a complaint with Chuck Rosenthal alleging that Dr. Saeed was negligent in his care of Mrs. Yates, thereby endangering the children. The DA says that he is studying the request. Any day we expect Russell Yates to file a civil action for professional negligence against Dr. Saeed.
The mental health community in Texas has its work ahead to persuade the public of the reality of postpartum psychosis, that this illness deserves our attention. We also know that we must try to change state law, as well as local opinion, about mental illness and the culpability of patients for their acts.
In the City of Rusk where Indian paintbrush blanket the fields and redbuds, tulip trees, and dogwoods bloom in sequential wandering splendor in the forests, Andrea Yates cannot see the blooms from behind the razor wire, and the beauty is lost to her. She will not see even the possibility of freedom for at least 40 years. Is that justice? Is she an example to other women who suffer from postpartum depression? Unlikely.
Are we protected from her? are our children safer for that? Doubtful.
What good is her punishment? The prison Andrea Yates creates in her mind living with the knowledge of her actions is greater than any prison the State of Texas can build for her.
Meanwhile in Houston, the faces of Noah, John, Paul, Luke, and Mary beam from their cold headstone as it warms from the rising southern sun. The light rain from last evening forms rivulets that streak down the granite, almost like tears. The accepting earth is wet, eternal resting place for the Yates children, a Texas grave. Perhaps the beginning of a new understanding of postpartum depression, mental illness as a defense to criminal responsibility, and the beginning of a change in our community. Perhaps.
J. Ray Hays, Ph.D., J.D., is a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Texas Houston Medical School. He is a psychologist and attorney and works at the Harris County Psychiatric Center, a 250 bed psychiatric hospital staffed by the University of Texas. He is a Diplomate in Clinical and Forensic Psychology from the American Board of Professional Psychology. He has authored over 100 papers, a dozen book chapters and edited, compiled, or written eight books. His current teaching interest is using a Problem Based Learning format to teach psychology and law. Dr. Hays may be reached at RHAYS@mind.hcpc.uth.tmc.edu