Houston Chronicle

July 31, 2001, 10:12AM

Yates' lawyers plan to enter insanity plea

By LISA TEACHEY
Houston Chronicle

A Clear Lake woman accused of drowning her five children in a bathtub was indicted Monday on two charges of capital murder.

Shortly after a Harris County grand jury returned the indictments, lawyers for Andrea Pia Yates filed a notice of intent with the 230th State District Court that they plan to mount an insanity defense.

One indictment charges Yates with capital murder-multiple murder in the deaths of Noah, 7, and John, 5. The other indictment is a charge of capital murder under 6 years old in the death of Mary, 6 months.

State law allows the filing of capital murder charges under several scenarios. In this case, the two charges against Yates are based on two of the scenarios. The first charge accuses Yates of killing more than one person. The second charge, a relatively new charge in Texas, accuses Yates of killing someone younger than 6 years old.

The children, along with siblings Paul, 3, and Luke, 2, were found dead June 20 in the Yates' home in the 900 block of Beachcomber after Yates called police.

Investigators have said the mother admitted to drowning her children in the family bathtub. Her husband, Russell Yates, told authorities his wife had been treated for postpartum depression for the past two years.

Although Andrea Yates, 37, could have faced charges in all the deaths, prosecutors have said that from a procedural standpoint, seeking indictments in the deaths of Paul and Luke is not necessary.

Their deaths will be brought out during trial.

That prosecutors are not seeking charges in all the deaths is not uncommon, said a South Texas College of Law associate dean and professor.

Catherine Burnett said a variety of reasons could be behind the decision.

"It's not as though all these facts (about how all five children died) are not going to be heard by a jury," Burnett said. "What's the benefit of bringing charges on all of them?

"If you get (a conviction on) one, do you need to have three more? How many life sentences can you get? How many death penalties can you get?"

Burnett said prosecutors could also be holding back as a legal maneuver.

"As a matter of strategy, you want to maximize your chances, have two bites at the apple if you will. That could be their strategy," Burnett said.

The case has no statute of limitations, meaning prosecutors could file other murder charges at any time, Burnett said.

"If they seek the death penalty and get life, they could come back with the others and seek death on those," Burnett said. "Or if they get an acquittal, they would still have two more cases to try."

If convicted, Yates could face life in prison without the possibility of parole for 40 years on each of the two charges or the death penalty.

The Harris County District Attorney's Office has not said whether the death penalty will be sought. If not, a conviction would mean an automatic life sentence.

But her lawyers are hoping a jury might be persuaded to send Yates to a mental institution instead of prison.

Within hours after the indictments Monday, George Parnham and Wendell Odom filed a "notice of intent to offer evidence of the insanity defense."

Basically the document means Yates is planning to plead not guilty by reason of insanity.

"The attorneys for the defendant ... have received opinions from two psychiatrists who state that at the time of the offense the defendant, Andrea Yates, was `mentally insane,' " the notice stated.

Yates is being held in the psychiatric unit of the Harris County Jail. She remains under a suicide watch, but recently was moved to a cell where she has contact with other psychiatric unit inmates.

Before state District Judge Belinda Hill issued a gag order on lawyers, witnesses and investigators in the case last month, Yates' lawyers told the Chronicle she probably would plead not guilty by reason of insanity because of her mental status.

Earlier this month, Parnham and Odom requested a hearing to determine whether she is competent to stand trial, saying they had tried to interview Yates on "an almost daily basis" at the jail. They said she appeared to have no rational or factual understanding of the proceedings against her.

The lawyers argued Yates suffers from a prolonged history of mental illness, including two prior hospitalizations, at least two attempts of suicide and prior diagnosis of "major depression and postpartum depression with psychosis."

Hill has ordered a psychiatric evaluation of Yates. The examination report is due to the court next week.

Yates' next court date is Aug. 8.

Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle