Andrea Yates: The Lie That Provided a Second Chance
In June of 2001, law enforcement received a call from Andrea Yates requesting help at her Houston area home. When law enforcement arrived, they found all five of Andrea’s children deceased. Andrea had drowned her kids in the family bathtub during a psychotic episode. Harris County prosecutors charged Andrea with capital murder and sought the death penalty.
In 2002, Andrea was tried for the murder of her children in Harris County. She was convicted and the jury refused to sentence her to death. She received the only other available sentence for capital murder – life with no parole.
Following that trial, Andrea’s lawyers successfully overturned her conviction and sentence on appeal. The 2006 retrial resulted in a not guilty by reason of insanity verdict (NGRI). The jury’s decision marked a true milestone in the use of mental health in serious criminal cases.
The story of Andrea Yates is well known in Houston and across the country. Both trials received national news coverage. The NGRI verdict continued an ongoing conversation on mental health in the criminal justice system. Since the NGRI verdict, multiple documentaries have tracked the horrific incident and the mental health issues that led to her actions.
The ongoing interest in Andrea’s case is largely built on the NGRI verdict and the debate that occurs around that decision. That verdict never occurs without an appellate victory that gave Andrea her second shot in trial. Andrea’s initial guilty verdict and life sentence would have ended the story if not for a huge mistake by a state expert.
This post will lay out the legal issues in Andrea’s case, the mistake from the state expert, and the win in the appellate courts in 2004.
Andrea’s Sole Defense – Insanity
In 2002, there was no doubt that Andrea had committed the offense of capital murder. She was present at the home when police arrived and confessed to her actions. The only issue in Andrea’s case was whether she was legally insane at the time the offense occurred.
Under Texas law, insanity is an affirmative defense to criminal charges. Andrea had the burden to show that due to a mental disease or defect she did not know her actions were wrong. Put differently, Andrea had to prove to a jury that she did not appreciate the wrongfulness of drowning her children.
There was no dispute that Andrea suffered from a severe mental disease. Andrea had a long history of psychotic episodes. These episodes were often triggered/exacerbated by post-partum depression. Following the birth of each of Andrea’s children, her symptoms would elevate. This often resulted in forced admissions to psychiatric wards. Andrea’s most severe symptoms included hearing voices, hallucinations, self-harm, and delusional thoughts.
Andrea could easily prove to a jury that she suffered from a mental disease under the insanity defense. The only question was whether she did not appreciate the wrongfulness of her conduct.
The Battle of the Experts
During her initial trial, Andrea’s attorney called multiple mental health experts to discuss Andrea’s psychiatric history and opine on whether she appreciated the wrongfulness of her conduct. Every defense expert that delivered an opinion stated Andrea’s mental issues would have prevented her from knowing her conduct was wrong, and thus, she was legally insane when the crimes were committed.
The prosecution called one expert, Dr. Park Dietz, to deliver his opinion that Andrea knew the conduct was wrong. Dietz testified that Andrea knew her conduct was wrong because she shamefully hid her children under sheets after their deaths, called the police after the incident, and took direction from the devil in her delusions/hallucinations. Dietz opined that Andrea knew the conduct was wrong because the devil was commanding her actions.
On cross examination, Andrea’s lawyer asked Dietz about his consulting work for the show Law & Order. In response, Dietz discussed an episode of Law & Order where a mother drowned her children and was ultimately found insane at trial. Dietz stated the show aired a week prior to this incident and Andrea was known to watch the show.
This testimony created a new theory for the prosecution – Andrea had watched the Law & Order show and mimicked the facts to get away with murdering her children. Later in trial, the state continued to run with the theory. During cross examination, prosecutors challenged a defense expert by restating the Law & Order facts and inquiring whether this knowledge changed her opinion in the case.
The state hammered home the Law & Order theory in closing argument with the following quote:
“She gets very depressed and goes into Devereux. And at times she says these thoughts came to her during that month. These thoughts came to her, and she watches “Law & Order” regularly. She sees this program. There is a way out. She tells that to Dr. Dietz. There is a way out.”
The Error Emerges
The jury returned guilty verdicts on all three counts of capital murder. After the verdict was returned, Andrea’s counsel called the producer of Law & Order to verify the existence of the show. The producer confirmed that no such episode had ever aired. The fact pattern discussed by Dietz simply did not exist.
Counsel immediately filed a motion for new trial alleging the use of false information to challenge Andrea’s claim for insanity. The state filed a stipulation with the court admitting that Dietz had delivered false testimony. Further, they acknowledged that Law & Order never aired an episode with the stated facts.
The trial court denied Andrea’s motion for new trial. The jury sentenced Andrea to life in prison with no parole.
The Court of Appeals Overturns the Conviction
Under Texas law, if a witness testifies to material, inculpatory facts against a defendant, and admits they delivered false testimony, a new trial should be granted. This base line rule is only effective if the recantation is not overwhelmed by other evidence of guilt.
The state provided one argument on appeal to uphold the conviction. They argued the false testimony was not material as it had no reasonable likelihood of affecting the jury’s decision. This argument falls flat when considering the legal issue in the case. The jury had one decision to make in Andrea’s trial – did she know the drowning of her kids was wrong.
If the jury believed Andrea watched the Law & Order episode days before the drownings, it undercuts her entire defense. It calls into question the role of the psychotic episode in the decision to take her childrens’ lives. The Law & Order theory implies the killings were not the result of a mental disease, but rather, a product of premeditation.
The Law & Order theory cut directly against Andrea’s sole defense and was delivered by the state’s sole expert on the issue. The jury had been armed with false information that could have swayed their verdict.
The Court of Appeals shot down the state’s argument, overturned the conviction, and remanded the case for a retrial. Four years later, Andrea was tried again for capital murder. This time the jury found Andrea not guilty by reason of insanity.
The Andrea Yates trial is likely one of the most covered criminal cases in United States history. Initially, the horrific facts attracted media and citizen attention to the case. As the years passed, the interest changed. Many news outlets were discussing the role of mental health in the criminal justice system. Leading up to the retrial in 2006, the citizenry and pundits were more sympathetic towards Andrea and her mental health issues. They seemed more accepting that severe delusions could excuse even horrific criminal conduct. From the incident in 2001 to the retrial in 2006, there was a transformation in the public’s view of Andrea. The timing of her retrial played a significant role in the NGRI verdict.
Andrea’s case was one of the first successful uses of the insanity defense in a high-profile case in the United States. It was the first time post-partum depression had been tied to psychotic episodes in a nationally televised criminal trial. Though it is unlikely this case shaped our views on mental health in the United States, it certainly continued the discussions and served as a sign post for the progress that had been made.
Andrea’s case would not have had the impact it has without the Law & Order theory proposed by Dietz. If the jury’s initial verdict stood, this case would likely sit amongst many that received coverage from national news sources. However, Dietz’s testimony gave Andrea a shot in the court of appeals and a second chance in the trial court. That second shot, and the watershed verdict that followed, cemented Andrea’s case as one of the truly compelling stories of the 21st century.
For those interested, the following is a list of documentaries about Andrea’s case: