Houston Chronicle

Sept. 21, 2001, 2:05AM

Expert: Yates contemplated killing children for months

By LISA TEACHEY
Houston Chronicle

Andrea Pia Yates had been thinking for months about killing her five children but made the decision the night before she drowned them in the family bathtub, a psychologist testified Thursday.

Testifying for the state at Yates' competency hearing, Steven Rubenzer, a psychologist with the Harris County Mental Health Mental Retardation Authority, said Yates made a chart showing the frequency of her "bad thoughts."

"They (the thoughts) were clearly troubling for her," Rubenzer testified. But he said he was unable to determine whether what was troubling was based on visions or thoughts.

Rubenzer said Yates told him that "it was time" for her to be punished, but he said she would not elaborate.

"I wasn't a good mother. ... I neglected them. ... I guess I got overwhelmed," Yates told Rubenzer during one of eight interviews he conducted with her.

The psychologist said he stopped her from saying more because he already had enough information to make his assessment on the competency issue and that he did not want her to jeopardize her case by confessing anything more to him.

Yates, 37, is facing two charges of capital murder in the deaths of Noah, 7, John, 5, and Mary, 6 months. The mother called police to her home in the 900 block of Beachcomber on June 20 and admitted to drowning them along with siblings Paul, 3, and Luke, 2.

Yates -- whose medical records indicate she had been treated off and on for severe depression with psychosis, suicide attempts and homicidal thoughts -- has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal is seeking the death penalty. He said the decision was made to allow for a full range of punishment options.

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

Rubenzer was ordered by state District Judge Belinda Hill to determine whether Yates is competent. His report, given to the court in early August, indicated that she was.

Because of the discrepancies between Rubenzer's findings and those by defense psychologists, Hill ordered the hearing to allow a jury to decide whether Yates is competent.

The panel of 11 women and one man will determine only what Yates' state of mind is now, not at the time of the crime.

Under Texas law, defendants can stand trial only if they meet a legal definition of competency, meaning they understand the charges against them and can aid lawyers in their defense.

If jurors find Yates is competent, her trial would progress.

Should they find her 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.

The defense, which has the burden of proving Yates is incompetent, rested Wednesday after its psychologist testified Yates wanted to be executed so she and Satan would be destroyed. The defense maintains Yates is getting better each day but is not fully competent yet.

Rubenzer said Yates did not mention Satan to him unless he questioned her about it based on notations in her chart from the Harris County Jail. Yates is under the care of doctors in the psychiatric unit of the jail, where she has been under suicide watch since she was admitted.

"I am Satan. ... George Bush will kill Satan," Yates told Rubenzer, apparently believing President Bush was still Texas governor.

Prosecutor Kaylynn Williford countered that Yates could be using the satanic imagery to express the internal struggles of good and evil. Rubenzer agreed.

When Rubenzer initially tested Yates using a standard interview technique to gauge how well she understood the legal system, she passed two parts of a three-part competency test, he said.

Yates scored very low on the appreciation component of the test in July. She did score in the "acceptable range" on the other two parts -- understanding and reasoning.

After later testing, Rubenzer said, her appreciation level had dramatically improved.

Rubenzer's report to Hill classified Yates as depressed, mildly confused, slow and inefficient at processing some information, defense lawyer George Parnham said during his cross-examination of the psychologist.

Parnham said Rubenzer had warned that putting Yates on the stand and submitting her to cross-examination, as well as the details of the crime, could send her back into a state of psychosis and render her incompetent.

"The better she gets the more fully she will be able to appreciate what she did?" Parnham said.

Rubenzer replied, "I believe so."

"She's just not quite there, is she, doctor?" Parnham asked.

Rubenzer said, "I don't think so."

Earlier Thursday, a jail nurse testified that Yates is showing signs of improvement. John Bayliss said Yates was catatonic at first but now she talks to other inmates, cleans the common area and plays dominoes.

Bayliss said Yates always smiles at him when he approaches her, but he said she has "a lack of luster in her eyes."

The state is expected to rest today after calling one more witness.

Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle