How Andrea Yates Lives, and Lives With Herself, a Decade Later

Ten years after being convicted of murdering her five children, her attorney says she is "doing well" and contributing to the postpartum depression awareness effort her trial instigated.

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Reuters

"I didn't know that," attorney George Parnham said Sunday evening when told that Monday marked ten years to the day that his most famous client, Andrea Yates, had been convicted of murdering her five small children in the bathtub of their home. "I have such strong memories of the trial and that day." (I had called Parnham last week seeking comment about the grim anniversary -- and an update on Yates -- for this retrospective piece posted Sunday).

So how is Andrea Yates ten years after Houston jurors took less than four hours to reject her insanity defense? "She's doing very well," Parnham said. "I talked to her today. I see her perhaps once a month. She's close to members in the firm. For instance, my wife will provide transportation for her mother to visit her." Yates currently resides and is treated at the Kerrville State Hospital, which is located approximately 70 miles from San Antonio.

"She is gradually trying to get acclimated to the normalcy of society," Parnham said. "She's taken an active role in the Yates Children Memorial Fund [created ten years ago by Parnham and his wife to spread the word about mental illness, in general, and about postpartum illness, in particular]. She makes cards and manufacturers aprons, which she sells anonymously, and then she takes the money and donates it to the Fund," Parnham said.

And what does the fund do with that money and other donations? "We've trained 500 screeners, for new moms, to determine whether they have symptoms of postpartum depression," Parnham says. "People now talk about depression. They now talk about postpartum depression. No one talked about that 15 years ago." Following fundraisers, Yates will often write thank-you letters to donors and other supporters, Parnham said.

It has been a remarkable road, for both Yates and Parnham, since March 12, 2002. In 2005, a Texas appellate court overturned Yates' conviction and ordered a new trial. A prosecution witness, famed expert Park Dietz, had falsely told jurors that Yates had watched an episode of "Law and Order" in which a mother had drowned her children in their bathtub. The purpose of the testimony was to establish premeditation -- but no episode had ever aired.

That new trial, in 2006, followed worldwide publicity about postpartum depression. Yates was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Today, Parnham says, Yates takes her medication by injection. Whatever she was ten years ago, she is diagnosed as bipolar now. Yates' mental illness remains. So, evidently, does her relationship with Russell Yates, the father of her children and the man whose last name she still bears. They are still in touch, Parnham says.

What Parnham is doing for his client now is trying to pitch a discharge plan that would gradually allow Yates to be released from confinement for short periods, "under security" as part of that acclimation process. He says he's got a landing spot picked out for her for such visits and that, if all goes well, Yates can one day fill the job that's been offered to her at an animal clinic. "She loves to work with animals," Parnham said.

It was time to end the call. I asked Parnham if he had any other thoughts he wanted to share on the anniversary of a shocking verdict. What he said next was striking:

"But for the conviction that occurred none of the good things would have happened," he said. "It would have been like a John Hinckley thing where nothing would change. It just so happened that the conviction, with the testimony of Park Dietz, turned this whole situation around."

I know that the Andrea Yates case changed George Parnham's life. You can hear it in his voice and see it in his actions this past decade. And, as I argued just Sunday, the Yates case certainly changed my life, too. This weekend I happened to be reading "Crazy," the profoundly important book by Pete Early about mental health and the American justice system. Andrea Yates may be contemplating a brighter future. But the system still has a long way to go.

Presented by

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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