New Trial for a Mother Who Drowned 5 Children

Published: January 7, 2005  (must register to view original article)

Andrea Yates, the Texas woman convicted of drowning her children in a bathtub, was granted a new trial by an appeals court in Houston yesterday. The court ruled that a prosecution expert's false testimony about the television program "Law & Order" required a retrial.

Ms. Yates, who had received diagnoses of postpartum depression and psychosis, confessed to the police in 2001 that she had drowned her five children, ages 6 months to 7 years. A Houston jury convicted her of murder the next year for three of the drownings, rejecting her insanity defense. The case ignited a national debate about mental illness, postpartum depression and the legal definition of insanity.

Yesterday's ruling was narrow and novel. It turned on testimony by Dr. Park Dietz, a psychiatrist who was the prosecution's sole mental health expert. Dr. Dietz testified that Ms. Yates was psychotic at the time of the murders but knew right from wrong. The latter conclusion meant that she was not insane under Texas' unusually narrow definition of legal insanity.

On cross-examination, Dr. Dietz was asked about his work as a consultant on "Law & Order," a program Ms. Yates, the appeals court said, "was known to watch." He was asked whether any of the episodes he had worked on concerned "postpartum depression or women's mental health."

"As a matter of fact," he answered, "there was a show of a woman with postpartum depression who drowned her children in the bathtub and was found insane, and it was aired shortly before the crime occurred."

That statement was false: There was no such episode. The falsehood was discovered after the jury convicted Ms. Yates.

Dr. Dietz, who did not respond to several messages seeking comment yesterday, said at the time that his testimony had been based on a mistaken recollection.

The trial court denied a defense request for a mistrial, but the jury was told about the false testimony during the sentencing hearing. The jury rejected the death penalty and sentenced Ms. Yates to life in prison.

Yesterday, the Court of Appeals for the First District of Texas ruled that the motion for a mistrial should have been granted.

"The state used Dr. Dietz's false testimony to suggest to the jury that appellant patterned her actions after that 'Law & Order' episode," the decision said. "We conclude that there is a reasonable likelihood that Dr. Dietz's false testimony could have affected the judgment of the jury."

Dr. Dietz did not explain the supposed significance of the "Law & Order" episode at the trial. But prosecutors returned to the subject in a separate cross-examination and in closing arguments, suggesting that she had copied the program in a way that implied lucid planning and premeditation.

Dr. Lucy Puryear, a psychiatric expert for the defense, was questioned about the nonexistent episode. In an interview yesterday, Dr. Puryear said the questions to her conveyed a powerful impression to jurors.

"Had she seen that show and gotten ideas from it," she said, "it would say that she had the ability to think in an abstract way and come up with a plan. That would mean she could tell the difference between right and wrong."

The appeals court said that there was no evidence that prosecutors had knowingly offered or discussed false testimony.

Joseph Owmby, one of the prosecutors, said his office would ask the three-judge panel to reconsider. If that fails, he said, prosecutors will ask the entire appeals court and then the state's highest court for criminal matters, its Court of Criminal Appeals, to reverse the panel's decision.

"It wasn't material," Mr. Owmby said, meaning that Dr. Dietz's testimony about "Law & Order" was not a significant factor in the jury's decisions. "It didn't affect her fair and just trial rights at the trial level."

He said no decision had been made about whether to retry Ms. Yates should the appeals fail.

At a televised news conference yesterday, George Parnham, one of Ms. Yates's lawyers, said she was not seeking an immediate release from prison. Ms. Yates "was surprised and not unpleased" by the decision, Mr. Parnham said. "She understands what's happening."

Deborah W. Denno, a law professor at Fordham University who has studied and written extensively about the Yates case, was critical of other aspects of Dr. Dietz's testimony, too. He testified, for instance, that Ms. Yates's delusions that her thoughts were coming from Satan indicated that she must have known they were wrong.

"He interpreted everything she did as evidence of premeditation and intention," Professor Denno said. "He is a hired gun in the worst sense."

In an interview with The New York Times a month after Ms. Yates was convicted, Dr. Dietz said he had found the case troubling.

"It would have been the easier course of action," he said of his own testimony, "to distort the law a little, ignore the evidence a little and pretend that she didn't know what she did was wrong."

Edward Wyatt contributed reporting for this article.