Houston Chronicle

June 26, 2001

Insanity defense has twofold proof burden

By JO ANN ZUÑIGA
Houston Chronicle

The Clear Lake woman who admitted drowning her five children faces a two-pronged burden of proof if she mounts the insanity defense her attorney is contemplating.

The defense would have to prove that she had a severe mental disease or defect and that she did not know her conduct was wrong, prosecutors said Monday.

Defense attorney George Parnham said Andrea Pia Yates, 36, is "headed" toward entering a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. Parnham suggested that investigators attempted to sabotage such a defense by leaking details of the statement Yates' gave police after the killings.

Yates is charged with capital murder because of the multiple victims, but prosecutors have not decided whether to seek the death penalty.

Yates, who is watched round-the-clock as a suicide risk, is on medication and has not been able to discuss her defense with him directly, Parnham said.

He said a conversation Saturday with psychiatrists treating Yates led him to believe an insanity defense might be appropriate. He declined to elaborate.

"I am waiting on records and expert opinions," Parnham said Monday. He has not yet requested a mental competency exam .

Yates called police to the family home at 942 Beachcomber on Wednesday and told them she had killed her children.

Police sources have said that in a later audiotaped statement, Yates described systematically drowning the children one by one in a bathtub, and chasing the oldest child when he ran from her. She told police she had been thinking for several months of killing the children.

Such evidence of premeditation could harm an insanity defense.

"I find it curious that the police would leak such statements to the media, particularly prior to even the children's funerals," Parnham said Monday.

"This was obviously done to affect the credible development in the public's eye and taint a fair adjudication of a possible insanity defense," he said.

An insane person who has lost touch with reality can still perform tasks logically and behave normally, he said.

"Someone can absolutely believe that Martians will land on a certain day. He could go about logically building a runway and hangar, purchase asphalt. But the premise is so out of touch with reality," Parnham said.

Prosecutor Joe Owmby said he has no immediate plans to seek a mental competency exam.

"We will take a wait-and-see approach because the defense is usually the one who requests that," Owmby said.

"The legal issue is whether she was able to tell what is right from wrong," he said.

Yates was a registered nurse and graduated near the top of her high school class, and that evidence of intelligence also could be a factor.

"The jury could react that a person of such high intelligence should have known how to handle a stressful situation or go for help," Owmby said.

Yates' husband, Russell Yates, also 36, has remained supportive of his wife. He and others have said she had suffered from depression for at least two years. She took several medications for it, and recently had been taken off the anti-psychotic drug Haldol.

Prosecutors said they will investigate the case for the next 30 days, then present the evidence to District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal for a decision on whether to seek the death penalty.

Dianne Clements, president of the Houston victim rights group Justice For All, said seeking the death penalty is "absolutely appropriate."

"All the facts in the case have to be fleshed out, but we don't understand the wholesale acceptance by the community of this woman's actions," Clements said.

"Rather than being outraged and up in arms, her family and neighbors are going on and on about how lovely she is. How lovely is a woman who murders her five children and chased the 7-year-old and dragged him back?" she said.

Services for the Yates children are scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Wednesday in Clear Lake Church of Christ, 938 El Dorado.

The children -- Noah, 7; John, 5; Paul, 3; Luke, 2; and Mary, 6 months -- will be buried in Forest Park East Cemetery, 21620 Interstate 45 in Webster.

Visitation will be at the church 6-8 p.m. today.

Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle