ABC News

Deciding Competency

Texas Mom's Mental Fitness Decision in Jury's Hands

By C. Bryson Hull
ABC News
Sept. 21, 2000

H O U S T O N — A jury today began deciding if a Texas mother accused in the bathtub drownings of her five children is mentally fit to face a capital murder trial.

The jury of 11 women and one man began deliberating after hearing three days of testimony about the mental competency of Andrea Yates, 37.

The panel must decide whether Yates understands the proceedings against her and is able to assist her lawyers in a trial that could lead to a death sentence if she is convicted.

A finding of competence would lead to Yates' trial, while a finding of incompetence would lead to her to commitment at a state mental hospital until she is deemed fit.

Yates has already pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to charges she drowned her five children, age 6 months to 7 years, in a bathtub at their Houston home June 20. She then called police and her husband, who still supports her, to confess what she had done.

Trial Assurance

Yates' attorneys say she suffered a psychotic form of severe postpartum depression that began after the birth of her fourth child and worsened after her fifth.

The jury got the case after defense attorneys assured jurors Yates would face trial in the future, but is currently so mentally fragile that the strain would send her reeling back into psychosis.

"We believe that all the evidence we've shown you proves she will eventually regain competency to stand trial," Yates lawyer Wendell Odom said. "The question is whether we do it now or whether we do it later."

Prosecutor Kaylynn Williford reminded jurors that Yates had the presence of mind to ask for her lawyer when a psychologist queried her about the drownings two months ago.

"She said, 'I want to talk to my attorney before I proceed any further.' And that's back in July," Williford said. "She's currently competent and that's the issue."

Prosecutor Joe Owmby said Yates' lawyers wanted her to be held to a higher standard of competency than the law allows.

"You show me one person in this room who is clear and sane all the time," Owmby said.

Musings of Satan

Defense attorney George Parnham countered few people have suffered a mental illness as severe.

"You find me one person in this room who said 'I'm Satan. The time has come. I deserve to be punished.' You know there is only one," he said, recalling earlier testimony that Yates had called herself Satan.

In morning testimony, a psychiatrist who treated Yates several times at the Harris County Jail's psychiatric wing, said she believes Yates' psychosis is not fully healed.

"It's my opinion that her illness at this point is in partial remission," Dr. Melissa Ferguson testified, based on an examination she conducted Tuesday.

Copyright 2001 Reuters.

Copyright 2001 ABCNEWS Internet Ventures.