Houston Chronicle

Sept. 2, 2001, 12:56AM

Release of Yates' records a legal maneuver

Medical history could aid either side of case

By LISA TEACHEY
Houston Chronicle

The release of medical records regarding Andrea Pia Yates' treatment for depression may garner public sympathy, legal experts said Saturday, but the primary reason for making them public is routine legal strategy.

Defense lawyers for the Clear Lake mother accused of drowning her five children filed with the court late Friday more than 1,000 pages of medical charts and records culled from four hospitals over a two-year period.

In doing so, the records immediately became public. Because state District Judge Belinda Hill has imposed a gag order on all parties in the case, the records are the first detailed release of information about Yates' condition leading up to the June 20 deaths of her children.

The stacks of records from Devereux Texas Treatment Network, Memorial Hermann Hospital Prevention and Recovery Center (formerly Memorial Spring Shadows Glen) and Methodist Hospital are accompanied by affidavits from each institution's custodian of records.

By filing the documents with the affidavits, defense lawyers George Parnham and Wendell Odom do not have to call each of the recordkeepers as witnesses to authenticate the documents, said Stanley Schneider, a lawyer not connected with the case.

"The affidavits prove these are records. No one is going to contest that," Schneider said. "The only thing that is going to be contested now is what they mean."

If the records show a pattern of mental illness, the defense will use that to persuade a jury, Schneider said. But prosecution experts will also rely on the documents to show whether that means Yates was insane at the time.

A hearing is set for Sept. 12 for a jury to determine whether Yates, 37, is competent to stand trial. The mother faces capital murder charges in the deaths of Noah, 7, John, 5, and Mary, 6 months. She is not charged with the other children's deaths, but prosecutors plan to present evidence about the deaths of Paul, 3, and Luke, 2, during trial.

Yates has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal is seeking the death penalty to give a jury a full range of punishment options.

The day after Yates' arrest, before the gag order was issued, her husband, Russell, said his wife had been treated for severe depression since the birth of their fourth child.

"History is going to prove this case," Schneider said. "Jurors are not going (to make a decision) without a lengthy medical history that is documented."

David Crump, a professor of law at the University of Houston, said filing medical records is common in court cases.

"It's like filing hospital records if you're suing because you broke your arm in an auto wreck," Crump said. "It's a routine kind of thing that usually doesn't create publicity.

"It just so happens in this case, because it's an unusual case, that it may also notify the public from which the jurors are drawn. That's just a side effect."

Brian Wice, another lawyer not connected to the case, said that may be exactly what the defense intended as well.

"You don't have to be Ken Starr (the former independent counsel who investigated President Clinton) to figure that one out," Wice said. "(The defense) wants it out there. Once it's in the court file, it's fully insulated from the gag order."

Wice said that, during most prominent court cases, lawyers hold dueling press conferences on the steps of the courthouse.

"If they're stifled by a gag order, this is the only way to sway the court of public opinion," Wice said. "Once you get a jury pool thinking about what's in these records, it just buttresses, rather than undermines, the claim that she's crazy as a loon."

Among the records are documents from a hospital stay at Spring Shadows Glen in 1999 in which Yates told a psychiatrist that she had been having homicidal thoughts since the birth of her first child.

Yates was first hospitalized there after two suicide attempts shortly after the birth of the fourth child. She said she was trying to take her own life to prevent herself from harming others. Yates said she worried about the well-being of the four children she had at the time.

One of the records indicates Yates also had a miscarriage at some point before the hospitalization.

Dr. Eileen Starbranch diagnosed Yates as having major depression with severe, recurrent psychotic features. The doctor had warned that having more children might cause Yates' condition to spiral downward.

"Apparently, patient and husband plan to have as many babies as nature will allow," Starbranch wrote in a progress note on Aug. 18, 1999. "This will surely guarantee future psychotic depression."

Yates' last two hospital stays were at Devereux in April and May shortly after the birth of Mary, her fifth child, and the death of Yates' father. Her husband told doctors there she had become paranoid, withdrawn and emotionally numb.

In a summary of her last admittance to Devereux, Dr. Mohammed Saeed wrote: "There was a concern about the patient's safety because, one time, the patient's mother-in-law had found the patient with the bathtub filled with water, and the patient was not communicating with anyone about her intent."

Yates was discharged 10 days later after Saeed found Yates was not suicidal. She continued an outpatient program there until May 22. Even though Yates was not participating in group sessions, Saeed released her because her husband said she was doing better and wanted to be at home.

Throughout all the records are indications that Yates seemed to improve with the use of antipsychotic and antidepressant drugs, but she often refused to take them or would throw them away.

Russell Yates said his wife had shown signs her condition was deteriorating again in June because she was taken off one of the antipsychotics.

Andrea Yates is being treated now with an antipsychotic drug in the psychiatric unit of the Harris County Jail. When she first arrived at the jail, her family has said, she was in a zombie-like state, but is now coherent, visiting other inmates and reading letters.

Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle