Houston Chronicle

Aug. 8, 2001, 10:24PM

DA will seek to put Yates on death row

Mom pleads insanity in drownings of 5 kids

Houston Chronicle

Buster Dean / Chronicle
Andrea Yates is led into her arraignment hearing by her attorney, George Parnham.
Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal said Wednesday he will seek the death penalty for Andrea Pia Yates, the Clear Lake mother accused of drowning her five children.

Earlier in the day, state District Judge Belinda Hill ruled that a jury will first decide if Yates is competent to stand trial. The ruling was made during an arraignment in which Yates pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to two charges of capital murder in the deaths of three of the children.

The 37-year-old homemaker faces capital murder charges in the deaths of three of her children -- sons Noah, 7, John, 5, and Mary, 6 months.

Houston homicide investigators said Yates admitted to drowning the children, along with siblings Paul, 3, and Luke, 2, in the family bathtub on June 20 at the Yates' home in the 900 block of Beachcomber.

Although all parties involved in the case are under a court-imposed gag order, Hill authorized Rosenthal's office to release a statement regarding the death-penalty decision.

"The Harris County District Attorney announced that he would have his prosecutors file the paperwork necessary to make the death penalty an option in the case ... " according to the statement. " ... (Rosenthal) believes that the citizens of Harris County ought to be able to consider the full range of punishment in this case, including the death penalty."

The state does not have to seek death in all capital murder cases. If prosecutors don't, a conviction would carry an automatic life sentence. If death is being sought, a conviction would mean a jury would have to decide life or death.

While Rosenthal's decision shocked some defense lawyers not connected to the case, others said prosecutors may not necessarily want to see Yates die by injection.

"They may just be trying to get a death-qualified jury," Stanley Schneider said. "They may be trying to ensure a conviction."

Schneider said jurors who say they cannot vote for the death penalty can be dismissed from service now that the state is seeking death.

"Those jurors, ones who could not vote for death, might be more sympathetic to an insanity defense," Schneider said. "This way they are able to exclude those jurors."

Another reason may be because of the social issues involved. Rosenthal simply wants the citizens who serve on the jury to make the decision, said lawyer Rusty Hardin.

"This is an extremely difficult decision for a DA to make on behalf of the community at large. It's a societal decision," Hardin said.

"No prosecutor is chomping at the bit to try this case," Hardin said. "And I would guess none of them are excited to seek death for this troubled mother.

"They know this is going to be an unpopular decision ... I think they just opted to say `Let's let a jury decide.' "

Two women are on death row for killing their children. Insanity was not an issue in either case.

Obtaining capital punishment for a woman with known psychiatric problems accused of killing her children is almost unheard of.

"Is there no limit to the savagery these people (prosecutors) will inflict on us all," Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association board member David A. Jones said.

Lawyer Richard Frankoff said seeking death was not necessary.

"How does that serve society," Frankoff said. "I think it's outrageous. It's inhumane."

During the arraignment, it was revealed that a court-appointed psychologist has found Yates is competent to stand trial. But defense lawyers say their doctors disagree.

Because of the discrepancies, Hill ordered a competency hearing.

"If there is any indecision or evidence ... that she is incompetent, then that issue needs to be presented to a jury," Hill said. No date has been set for the hearing.

Yates entered the courtroom Wednesday wearing an orange Harris County Jail uniform. She never looked toward the spectator section where her husband, Russell Yates, sat.

Yates sat motionless and silent throughout the proceedings, often clenching her teeth. She stood only when the court accepted her pleas as given by lawyer George Parnham.

Her husband, sitting alongside his mother, Dora Yates, looked directly at Yates when she walked in. He held his gaze on her for several minutes with a look of concern. He has told police his wife suffered from severe depression.

After prosecutor Joe Owmby read each charge, and Hill asked how Yates pleaded, Parnham responded, "Your honor, Mrs. Yates pleads not guilty by reason of insanity."

Yates is charged with capital murder-multiple murder in the deaths of Noah and John. She is charged with capital murder under 6 years old in the death of Mary.

Although she is not charged with the other children's deaths, prosecutors have said they plan to present evidence about the deaths of Paul and Luke during trial.

A trial, though, cannot begin unless she is found competent by a separate jury. If she is found incompetent, she could be remanded to a mental health facility. With the proper medication and therapy she could, at a later date, be found competent.

Under Texas law, a defendant can stand trial only if he meets a legal definition of competency, meaning he understands the charges against him and can aid lawyers in his defense.

Insanity refers to whether a defendant will be held criminally responsible for his actions. The law holds a jury can find someone legally insane only if he had a severe mental disorder and could not tell right from wrong when the crime was committed.

Owmby questioned whether the competency hearing was necessary, given that Harris County Mental Health/Mental Retardation Authority psychologist Steve Rubenzer determined she is.

Hill ordered Rubenzer to perform the evaluation so the court would have an independent report from someone other than the MHMRA officials already treating her in the psychiatric unit of the Harris County Jail.

But defense lawyers, Parnham and Wendell Odom, argued their own doctors have examined Yates and say she has a "prolonged history of mental disease."

In an affidavit previously filed with the court, Odom wrote that Yates is unable to consult with him "with a reasonable degree of rational understanding."

Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle