Time to check in on the Andrea Yates retrial again, where closing arguments are going on. Both sides brought out their strongest expert testimony last week, and though there was some new testimony overall, this trial was in many ways a lot like the first one.
Mental illness was again a predominant theme of the trial, since Yates had struggled with that since 1999, surviving two suicide attempts and several psychiatric hospitalizations. The 15 people chosen to sit on the jury – 12 regular jurors and three alternates – heard more about postpartum depression, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, delusions and auditory hallucinations than they will probably ever hear again in their lifetimes.
They viewed Yates’ medical records, listened to her doctors, heard her best friend and her former mother-in-law describe how she unraveled in the weeks before the drownings and heard about the good life she led as a young woman – graduating as valedictorian of her class at Milby High School in 1982 and working as a nurse at M.D. Anderson Hospital before becoming a mother.
They were exposed to the awful aftermath: crime scene photographs and videos of her five children’s bodies after Yates drowned them – ages 7, 5, 3, 2 and 6 months – on June 20, 2001. Jurors also viewed portions of Yates’ videotaped interviews with various doctors in the months following the deaths and earlier this year.
But the new trial differed in some marked ways from the preceding affair in 2002.
Perhaps most notably, jurors this time cannot consider the death penalty since the jury in Yates’ first trial rejected that option.
The jurors in state District Judge Belinda Hill’s courtroom during the past few weeks also did not hear from Yates’ former husband and the children’s father, Russell Yates, although he had been sworn in as a witness and showed up at the courthouse frequently during the trial.
Likewise, this jury did not hear from Yates’ mother or other family members – but did watch testimony offered by her best friend, Debbie Holmes, and Yates’ former mother-in-law, Dora Yates, who described the accused woman’s deteriorating mental state in the weeks before the drownings.
Jurors also heard from a forensic psychiatrist who just joined the case late last year and watched video segments from a 14-hour interview he conducted with Yates in May. That new expert witness, Dr. Michael Welner, testifying for the prosecution, said he believes Yates knew the drownings were wrong and alleged the children’s deaths were motivated by her selfish needs.
Prosecutors presented unflattering testimony from one of Yates’ former cellmates, who said Yates told her about chasing the oldest child through the house and becoming angry with him during an intense struggle before overpowering and killing him.
I’ll get to Dr. Welner in a second. Dr. Park Dietz was a smaller figure this time around, as any mention of his erroneous testimony in the first trial was barred by Judge Belinda Hill. That decision has generated some controversy.
There are few courts in this land as pro-prosecution as Texas’ 1st Court of Appeals, and few judges as conservative as the panel that reversed Andrea Yates’ conviction, citing Dietz’s false testimony, the prosecution’s use of it and its potential impact on the jury’s guilty verdict. In fairly short order, the case was returned to the lower court, Yates’ case was set for retrial and Judge Hill ruled against any mention of Dietz’s false testimony. Thus unburdened, the prosecution once again offered the testimony of its star witness, Dietz.
Ask any lawyer: It is a bedrock of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence that every witness who takes the stand may be shown to have bias or prejudice toward the party he is testifying against. The reason is obvious: The trier-of-fact, whether judge or jury, is entitled to that information in order to determine whether the witness is honest or not.
By any standard, the defense should have been able to undermine Dietz’s current testimony – that Yates knew right from wrong, the legal test of insanity, primarily because Satan, and not God, told her to kill her sons. Unshackled, most trial lawyers would have left Dietz’s testimony like shards of broken glass on the courtroom floor. Instead, Judge Hill protected the doctor, handcuffed the defense and shielded the jury from the truth.
Another legal maxim holds that appellate courts seldom reverse convictions solely because of a mistaken evidentiary ruling. Not so this time. That Dietz was allowed to testify cleansed of his unforgivable distortion, deprived Yates of critical impeachment, and thus, a fair trial, arguably the most important right enjoyed by any citizen. If the jury doesn’t “cure the error,” finding her not guilty by reason of insanity, and rejecting Dietz’s curious “the devil made me do it” theory, some other court will, reversing the conviction and sending the case back for trial once again.
And Andrea Yates will be right back in Judge Hill’s court, fighting to be sent to a mental institution for the remainder of her life, and not to jail – where enlightened societies send only sane people who have done terrible things.
Just what we’d all want. I daresay the prosecution would claim in such a scenario that Dr. Welner’s testimony was what carried the day for them, but it’s still a potentially messy situation. Perhaps the jury will acquit and spare us all the trouble.
Rusty Yates was also absent from the stand this time around. Like the expert quoted, I’m not sure whom he’d have helped or hurt more, so I can certainly see the reasons to avoid him. And I think I speak for many, many people when I say that in general, the less Rusty, the better.
On to Dr. Welner, the state’s new star, who put a spin on the killings that I can’t say I’d seen advanced before.
Michael Welner, a prosecution medical expert who interviewed Yates earlier this year for about 14 hours and reviewed other doctors’ reports about her, told jurors that Yates felt overwhelmed with child care responsibilities and that she and her husband, Russell Yates, were not intimate or communicating well weeks before the drownings.
“She felt she was failing not only her children, but also her marriage,” he testified.
Welner also said the drownings were a benefit for Yates, not a spiritual act to help the children avoid hell, as other medical experts have testified Andrea Yates told them.
“In my opinion Andrea Yates committed the crime to help herself, not her children,” Welner said.
That’s a mighty cold reading, one that equates Andrea Yates to Susan Smith. Given that everybody, including Dr. Welner, agrees Yates was psychotic, I’m a little skeptical about the jury buying that. But of course, you never know, and I wasn’t there to see their reactions, so take that for what it’s worth.
The defense told a different story, of course, with their last witness.
Andrea Yates believed one of her sons would become a serial killer, another would be a mute homosexual prostitute and that both would burn in the fires of hell if she did not kill them, a psychiatrist told jurors today.
Dr. Phillip Resnick, who interviewed Yates twice after her children’s deaths and also reviewed other psychiatrists’ interviews with her, said Yates believed she had ruined her children and that they would grow up to sin and then be sent to hell.
She believed she could save their souls if she killed them before they reached age 10, which she considered the age of responsibility, Resnick said.
He said Yates believed that John, 5, would become a serial killer.
“Another son would grow up to be a mute, homosexual prostitute,” Resnick said.
Resnick, a psychiatry professor at Case Western Reserve University’s medical school in Cleveland, Ohio, testified that Yates’ mental illness made her delusional, resulting in her belief that she was doing the right thing by killing her children to save them from damnation.
He said she believed she had beaten Satan in the battle for their souls because they would go to heaven.
Yates’ religious beliefs, he said, were the “trellis” on which her delusions grew. She believed, he said, that she had caused her children to stumble and Satan wanted them in hell.
“Mrs. Yates began to believe that not only was Satan tormenting her, but tormented her children,” Resnick said. “She believed that Satan would have her children.”
After the deaths, she believed that she would be punished and executed by the state of Texas, the only entity that could destroy Satan, he testified.
Note that this belief that she would be executed for what she did ties nicely into the defense argument that society’s idea of knowing right and wrong is not necessarily meaningful to a delusional person. What they want the jury to conclude is that Yates may have believed her actions would be judged by others as wrong, but that she herself thought she was doing the right thing. It’s a critical difference.
Dr. Resnick also addressed Dr. Welner’s construction of Yates’ actions.
In the 16th day of testimony of Yates’ capital murder retrial, Dr. Phillip Resnick – a mental health expert summoned by the defense – bristled at a suggestion that Yates drowned her five children in an attempt to draw her husband closer to her.
“I’m shocked you would suggest her concern is with her husband when she’s killing her kids … To suggest this is the result of some family tiff is way off the mark,” Resnick told prosecutor Joe Owmby during cross-examination.
Resnick said there is no evidence to indicate Yates thought she and her husband “would walk into the sunset” without their children, calling that “a ridiculous hypothesis.”
Had Rusty Yates been called to testify, it would have been interesting to have him explore Dr. Welner’s hypothesis.
I don’t know what will happen, or how long it will take the jury to come to a decision. The one thing we do know for sure is that no matter what happens, Andrea Yates will be confined to a state facility for a long time.