10 Years Later, the Tragedy of Andrea Yates

On the anniversary of a harrowing verdict, lessons on the place of mental illness in the legal system

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Ten years ago tomorrow, on March 12, 2002, Andrea Yates, an otherwise unremarkable suburban Houston mother, was convicted by a Texas jury of murdering all five of her young children by drowning them, one by one, in the bathtub of their home. With her husband at work, and with the family dog caged, Yates had ceremoniously laid the lifeless little bodies on the bed, again one by one, and then called the police. "I just killed my kids," she said. It was June 20, 2001.

In whole or in part I have covered hundreds of murder cases since 1997, including the unbearably sad Oklahoma City bombing trials of Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols. And yet no case, no trial, no legal story has ever moved me as much as the Yates case did. I have never seen such a severely mentally ill person. And I believe that no parent who covered the Yates trial, or who closely followed it, was quickly able to forget it. I know I never have.

In February 2002, Yates was tried for capital murder in downtown Houston. Prosecutors said that she knew what she was doing the whole time. There was a chilling 911 tape, and physical evidence, and Yates herself had confessed. The case was never a "Whodunnit" but rather raised the question: Why did she do it? Why did a dedicated mother, a former valedictorian, a home-schooler with deep religious beliefs, crack in such devastating fashion?

I spent a lot of time in Houston attending the trial. I spent a lot of time inside that courthouse (I was there on September 11, 2001, for example, for a competency hearing that was cancelled because of the terror attacks). But I've covered plenty of trials in person. What made the difference, I think, is that, at the time, my own child was just barely two years old. He was just a month older, in fact, than Luke Yates, one of the victims of June 20, 2001.

The only significant disputed issue of the trial was whether Yates was mentally ill at the time of the killings. Yates' attorneys and experts argued that their client was suffering from postpartum depression and was severely mentally ill on June 20, 2001. Following her arrest, Yates had told authorities that she drowned her children to save them. "My children were not righteous," Yates said. "I let them stumble. They were doomed to perish in the fires of hell."

From one of my 2002 columns: "No one should ever have to see photos or videos of dead babies... No one should have to see close-ups of their legs and faces as they all lay together on the bed they must have once cuddled on with their parents. No one should ever have to see a little boy lying face down in a bathtub full of cloudy water or that same boy lying face up next to the tub. No one should ever have to contemplate what it must have been like for those Yates children on that morning, just after they had finished their cereal."

On March 12, 2002, it took the eight women and four men of the jury only three and half hours to reject Yates' insanity defense. A few days later, those same jurors would similarly reject the prosecution's attempts to get a death sentence for Yates. This time, it took them only one hour to make up their minds. Yates was given a life sentence, with the possibility of parole after 40 years. Texas then locked in prison its severely mentally ill convict. Just appalling.

Before the stunning verdict, I wrote: "Every time [prosecutor] Kaylynn Williford talked to jurors about the determination it must have taken Yates to kill those children that day, that determination struck me as insanity. Williford asked the jury, for example, to take three minutes of silence during their deliberations to contemplate how long Yates had to hold each of her children under water for each of them to be rendered unconscious... I'm not sure how that proves evilness over insanity. I think of those three minutes and I think of pure madness.

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic. He is a legal analyst for 60 Minutes and CBS Radio News, a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, and Commentary Editor at The Marshall Project

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