Retrial Begins in Yates Child Drownings

Andrea Yates is escorted into court by a sheriff in this file photo from June 2001.

hide captionAndrea Yates is escorted into court by a sheriff in this file photo from June 2001. Her conviction from that trial was thrown out. A retrial began in Houston this week.

Steve Ueckert/AFP/Getty Images

In Houston, a retrial begins for Andrea Yates, the mother who claims she was insane when she drowned her five young children in a bathtub in 2001. An earlier conviction was thrown out.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Andrea Yates is on trial in Texas this week again. She's the woman who drowned her five children in a bathtub in a Houston suburb. Last year an appeals court threw out a murder conviction from 2002. The trial this time, as it did back then, hinges on her sanity.

NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR, reporting:

At the courthouse in Houston last night, just over a dozen people gathered at a vigil for Andrea Yates. The coalition talked about post-partum depression, about the five children who died and about problems they see with the Texas insanity law. Debra Bell says Yates should be able to plead guilty but insane. However in Texas, there is no such plea.

Ms. DEBRA BELL (Activist): Prosecution of this nature is persecution as well as cruel and unusual punishment for a person with mental illness.

LOHR: The state of Texas decided to go forward with the second murder trial for Yates. The first conviction was thrown out because Park Dietz, a forensic psychiatrist, testified that Yates may have gotten the idea to drown her children in part from a Law and Order television program. It came out later that no such episode existed. Dietz was one of several experts who testified Yates was sane when she committed the crime. Chuck Rosenthal, Harris County District Attorney made the decision to go forward with the second trial.

Mr. CHARLES ROSENTHAL (Harris County District Attorney): We all agree that Mrs. Yates is mentally ill. That does not mean that she is insane. Mental illness and insanity are two different standards. Insanity has to do with whether or not you appreciate what you're doing is against the law. And it was plain from the evidence before, it will be plain from the evidence again that she did know exactly what she was doing. She knew it was illegal at the time she committed the offense.

LOHR: Yates drowned her children, wrapped them in white sheets and laid them in bed before calling police on June 20, 2001. Defense attorney George Parnham says Yates had a history of mental illness and was unable to make decisions. Now Yates is being heavily medicated to get through this trial. Parnham spoke during a break in the testimony.

Mr. GEORGE PARNHAM (Defense counsel): She was acting under a severe delusion that by drowning her kids she was saving her children from a lasting damnation in hell and that's how she performed.

LOHR: This is the same defense used during the trial in 2002. But Parnham says this time he has more hard facts.

Mr. PARNHAM: We've got five years of additional mental health evidence that's been presented to the fact that Andrea Yates has been clearly mentally ill, in and out of mental health facilities. Coupled with the fact that there has been some other similar tragedies that have occurred in Texas, I think the communities around the state are beginning to realize how real this whole issue is.

LOHR: Psychiatrist Park Dietz is expected to testify again. But this time his testimony comes after he said that a mother from Tyler, Texas was insane after she killed two of her children. That doesn't mean he'll change his mind about Yates, but it raises more questions about the legal definition of insanity. One big difference in this trial, the state cannot seek the death penalty for Yates since the last jury gave her life in prison.

Reverend FAIRY CAROLAND (Rusty Yates's aunt): And our end is our beginning and our time infinity. In our doubt there is believing in our life eternity.

LOHR: At last night's vigil, Rusty Yates's aunt, Reverend Fairy Caroland, sang this prayer for Andrea Yates and for her children, Noah, Paul, John, Luke and Mary.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News.

Reverend CAROLAND: God bless Andrea and God help us all.

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