Houston Chronicle

Aug. 10, 2001, 2:06AM

Yates' words are limited by gag order

Briefing permitted to tell of defense fund

Houston Chronicle

The husband of Andrea Pia Yates seemed frustrated Thursday by a gag order forbidding him from talking about the state's decision to seek the death penalty for his wife, who has admitted to drowning their five young children.

During a court-approved news conference to announce a fund to help Yates' lawyers defend against the death penalty, Russell Yates chose his words carefully.

"I can tell you this, I would love to respond ... about how I feel about the state seeking the death penalty against Andrea, but I can't," he said as he rocked on his heels.

"I think all the evidence will eventually come out, as well as how I feel about this," he added. "But today I can't comment."

Andrea Yates, 37, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to two charges of capital murder in the deaths of three of the children, sons Noah, 7, John, 5, and Mary, 6 months.

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

A hearing has been ordered for a jury to determine whether she is competent to stand trial.

State District Judge Belinda Hill has imposed a gag order on lawyers, witnesses and investigators in the case. Because she allowed Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal to announce on Wednesday that he will seek the death penalty, she allowed the defense team to issue a brief statement about their need to set up a defense fund.

Russell Yates attended the news conference with his mother, Dora Yates, his mother-in-law, Jutta Karin Kennedy, and his brother-in-law, Andrew Kennedy. Russell Yates was the only one who responded briefly to reporters' questions.

When Yates first began talking, lawyer George Parnham interrupted him to remind him that he was under the gag order.

"I believe ... that the gag order prohibits all of us from discussing the feelings relative to the wife and daughter being charged with the death penalty," Parnham said. "I think those feelings should be self-evident. Beyond that, we're not going to be able to comment."

It wasn't until later that Yates made his brief comments. He also fielded one question about the children.

"I mean, obviously, like I said at the funeral service, you know, they were my friends. I miss them every day, you know. It's hard," Yates said. "I see reminders of them, you know, every where I go, not just at home, but in public."

Parnham said he and co-counsel Wendell Odom were permitted by Hill to only talk about the defense fund.

"We share your frustrations in not being permitted to address the issues that you're asking us about," Parnham said. "But we will maintain our adherence to her (Hill's) order."

Now that the state is seeking the death penalty, the defense team will need more money to hire experts and doctors to testify about Andrea Yates' mental status, Parnham said. He and Odom declined to say how much such a defense would cost.

They said contributions can be made to the Andrea Pia Yates Defense Fund, Horizon Capital Bank, One City Centre, 1021 Main Street, Houston, TX 77002. Correspondence and checks should be addressed to the attention of "Bank Tellers."

If the fund receives more money than is needed for Yates' defense, Odom said, the excess will be donated to causes for women's mental health issues, particularly postpartum depression and psychosis.

Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle