Will Justice Be Served on Andrea Yates?

By Vatz, Richard E. | USA TODAY, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Will Justice Be Served on Andrea Yates?


Vatz, Richard E., USA TODAY


THE TEXAS STATE Appeals Court's throwing out of Andrea Yates' convictions after drowning her five children should not affect the ultimate disposition of her case. Yates should be incarcerated for the rest of her life. The evidence that she knew exactly what she was doing, notwithstanding the stress she was under, is overwhelming and seemingly without serious contradiction, save for the incredulity of the public.

The cause of the reversible error in the case is the testimony of the generally responsible Park Dietz, the lone psychiatrist for the prosecution. His well-known opposition to the insanity pleas of murderers John Hinckley, Jeffrey Dahmer, and "Unabomber" Theodore Kaczynski laid the groundwork for his testimony for the prosecution. He testified that "shortly before" the Yates drownings, there was a segment of the show "Law and Order" (for which he was a consultant) which dealt with a "woman with postpartum depression who drowned her children in the bathtub and was found insane...."

Pursuant to Dietz's claim, the prosecution said in closing arguments that "maybe" there was evidence that Yates saw from that show that "she could drown her children and get away with it." In addition, the prosecution maintained, she told Dietz that therefore "there is a way out" for her. The court now alleges that there had been no airing of any such episode.

One of the prosecutors, Joseph Owmby, says he hopes to make the appeals panel reconsider. If it does not, Owmby vows to take it to Texas' highest court. He argues that Dietz's error was not material. To the contrary: The allegedly false testimony arguably is material in that it well may have substantively affected the verdict. However, it should not have.

To plead insanity successfully in Texas, Yates would have had to prove that she could not tell right from wrong at the time of the killings. The fact that it was she who called the police is significant evidence that this difficult standard was not satisfied.

Throughout the events of the day of the killings, there was no evidence of Yates' being out of touch with reality or incapable of controlling her actions. Indeed, the opposite is true. These unconscionable acts appeared to be a result of contemptible, but quite rational decisionmaking. She could not stand her life as it had evolved.

Arriving after her call, Frank Stumpo, a Houston police officer, confronted Yates and recalled asking her, "Do you realize what you have done?" She answered, "Yes, I do; I killed my children." She latex stated she was a "bad mother."

Was she out of touch with reality? Did she have premeditation and criminal intent? Undisputed are these facts: She furiously had chased, and eventually killed, the oldest of her children, seven-year-old Noah, who desperately was trying to escape being slaughtered. Moreover, Yates admitted to contemplating murdering her kids for a considerable time before actually doing so. Significantly, evidence of intentional violence in Yates' actions also may have moved the jury, as her hair was found in son John's fist, suggesting he fought against his mother's attack. Imagining the horrible terror Noah must have felt should move any observer to profound sympathy for the victims and equally profound disgust for Yates.

The defense has argued all along that Yates suffered from postpartum depression as well as depression from her father's death prior to the killing of her children. No doubt Yates was depressed. However, depression does not mean that an individual is not responsible for his or her actions. The power of psychiatric rhetoric to mystify is almost impossible to exaggerate.

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