Attorneys made opening statements and examined the first few witnesses in the capital murder retrial of Andrea Yates. As Houston Public Radio’s Laurie Johnson reports, both sides are arguing the case with a focus on what it means to be mentally ill.
Five years ago, Andrea Pia Yates drowned her five children in the bathtub of her Clear Lake home. No one disputes that she killed them. The question in this case is whether she was insane at the time of the killings or if she was mentally stable and knew what she was doing. Deborah Bell is the co-founder of the Andrea Pia Yates Support Coalition. She says under Texas law the definition of sanity is knowing right from wrong.
“Someone with a mental illness may actually know something is right or wrong, but that does not mean that they’re not compelled to act on it. And all evidence has shown that Andrea was compelled by her hallucinations, her delusions, her illness that she was being told, she thought she was being told by the devil to take her children’s lives.”
Yates supporters say she should be treated for her illness, rather than punished for the crime. But prosecutors and justice advocates say there is no room in Texas law for an acquital based on mental illness. They say Yates knew what she was doing was wrong and the jury must find her guilty.
Twelve jurors and three alternates heard testimony from the 9-1-1 operator who took the call from Yates and also from the first officer to arrive on the scene. Prosecutor Joe Owmby played the 9-1-1 tape in which the operator questions Yates about the reason for her call. Yates does not answer the question, simply saying “I need a police officer.” When asked if she was alone she said “yes” but then later said “no, my kids are here.” The operator questioned her several times about the reason for the call. Yates did not answer, all that could be heard was labored breathing. Houston Police Officer David Knapp testified that when he arrived at the house, Yates answered the door and was wide-eyed, appeared to be in an excited state and her hair and clothes were dripping wet. He asked her why she called for the police and she told him she killed her children. Knapp described the scene inside the house, where he found puddles of water on the tile and carpet along with two sets of wet footprints belonging to an adult and child. He then described finding the bodies of four of the children lying in a bed. He said they were cold and clammy to the touch and three of them had a white, frothy substance coming from their mouths and nostrils, indicating their lungs had burst.
Yates is being tried on three of the five deaths. She is pleading not guilty by reason of insanity. If convicted, she faces life in prison. If acquitted, she will likely spend the rest of her life in a mental hospital, although state law prevents the jurors from being informed of that. Laurie Johnson Houston Public Radio News.