NOW Will Raise Funds for Yates' Legal Defense
NOW Will Raise Funds for Yates' Legal Defense
Spotlight Placed on Depression Issue
By: Lisa Teachey
Date: August 24, 2001
Source: Teachey, Lisa. "NOW Will Raise Funds for Yates' Legal Defense; Spotlight Placed on Depression Issue." Houston Chronicle (August 24, 2001).
About the Author: Lisa Teachey is a newspaper reporter for the Houston Chronicle. She covered the Andrea Yates case in a series of newspaper articles throughout 2001 and 2002.
On June 20, 2001, Andrea Yates called the Houston, Texas 911 hotline to report a problem with her children. When police arrived, they found seven-year-old Noah, five-year-old John, three-year-old Paul, two-year-old Luke, and seven-month-old Mary dead in the house, all five children having been drowned by their mother. Yates, a former nurse, was a stay-at-home mother who home schooled her older children. She and her husband, Russell "Rusty" Yates, a NASA engineer, were devout Christians, and Andrea believed that she had destroyed her children by being a bad mother; the only way to save their souls, she believed, was to kill them. She told police that she had been thinking about harming her children for more than two years, because, in her words, they were "not developing correctly." She did not elaborate on what she meant.
The case quickly made national headlines. When psychiatrists revealed that Andrea Yates was suffering from post-partum psychosis, a rare condition in which a mother experiences psychotic episodes within the first year after giving birth, some women's groups, such as the National Organization for Women, began to frame Andrea Yates's crime as one that stemmed from severe mental illness. Media analyses examined infanticide laws, which pose lighter penalties in countries such as England, and which also carry heavy mental health services as part of the sentence. The drowning of the Yates children polarized public sentiment in the United States; while many viewed Andrea Yates as a cold-blooded killer who told police that she chased down her seven-year-old son, Noah, after he saw his siblings' bodies and realized what was happening, others portrayed Yates as an over-stressed, highly controlled, submissive wife of a religious-fundamentalist husband who ignored her post-partum depression after her fourth child.
As new details from the Yates's life emerged, feminist groups and critics began to portray Rusty Yates as a responsible party to the crimes—not for his actions, but for his inaction. Andrea Yates struggled with postpartum depression after giving birth to her fourth child, Luke; pundits questioned why the couple went on to have a fifth child when doctors warned them not to have more children. Andrea Yates was hospitalized for mental health problems and attempted suicide twice in 1999 and twice in 2001, before the drownings. She stopped taking her psychiatric medications—with Rusty's knowledge. Rusty Yates revealed that on the day of the murders he left for work knowing that Andrea was unstable; Rusty's mother was on her way to help Andrea, but Rusty left a two-hour window between his departure and his mother's arrival. It was during that two-hour window that Andrea drowned her five children.
The Houston Area National Organization for Women is rallying support for Andrea Pia Yates, the Clear Lake mother who has admitted to drowning her five children.
In addition to forming the Andrea Pia Yates Support Coalition, the local chapter of NOW plans to help raise money for Yates' defense fund, the organization's state president said Thursday.
The women's rights group also said it will offer support to Yates' husband, Russell.
Meanwhile, Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal has received correspondence critical of Russell Yates.
Of the 72 e-mails and letters Rosenthal received regarding whether Andrea Yates should be punished by death, some said Russell Yates should be held accountable, too. Seventeen blasted him for leaving the children with his wife because, they said, he knew she was mentally unstable.
Andrea Yates, 37, faces capital murder charges in the deaths of three of her children sons 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.
The mother, who relatives said suffered severe depression, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
So far, the support coalition has not taken in any money for Yates, but the president of Texas NOW said fund-raisers could be in the works.
"Right now we're just giving out information about the defense fund," said Deborah Bell of Houston. "We're trying to bring attention to this issue and attention to the fund."
The fund was established at Horizon Bank by Yates' hired lawyers after Rosenthal announced he would seek the death penalty. Rosenthal said the decision was made to give a jury a full range of punishment options.
Yates called Houston police to her home in the 900 block of Beachcomber on June 20 and admitted drowning the children in the bathtub. Russell Yates told police his wife was depressed and had been medically treated for her condition. She is under suicide watch in the psychiatric unit of the Harris County Jail.
Shortly after Andrea Yates was arrested, NOW adopted a resolution regarding postpartum depression during a national conference, Bell said. The resolution urges the judiciary to "consider tragedies of this sort in the full context of the nature of postpartum depression," and calls for more research into the illness.
The coalition also plans to hold a candlelight vigil the night before a competency hearing on whether Yates is fit to stand trial. The hearing is set for Sept. 12. Other support efforts are in the works, including a court watch, a march and an educational forum.
Bell said despite the criticism of Russell Yates, the local coalition is in place to support all of the Yates family.
"As long as he is standing by her, we are standing by him," Bell said.
Some of Rosenthal's mail regarding Russell Yates questioned why the husband was not being criminally prosecuted.
Her lawyers have said she suffered a prolonged history of mental disease and defect, including two prior hospitalizations, at least two attempts of suicide and prior diagnosis of major depression and postpartum depression with psychosis.
"It was evident she was not well for some time and her husband was fully aware of it," wrote one person, who was against the death penalty in this case. "He needs to be arrested as an accomplice."
"He is just as guilty," wrote another, who thinks the mother should be put to death. "He did not protect his children against a very dangerous woman … He should be charged and sent to prison."
A lawyer not involved with the case said Russell Yates committed no crime.
Under Texas law, an accomplice is defined as someone who intentionally aided, solicited or encouraged a crime to be committed, Brian Wice said.
A neglect charge against the husband would not be feasible either because there is no evidence the mother abused, starved or neglected the children, Wice said.
"Should he have been able to look into the future and seen that she was going to snap? No. Mental illness isn't a justification that someone is going to violate the law with impunity, particularly when it concerns your own flesh and blood."
"He may be condemned, and rightfully so, in the court of public opinion, but there is no legal basis for him to stand trial in a court of law."
Former District Attorney John B. Holmes Jr., who was regarded nationally for his tough stance on seeking death penalties, also weighed in on the subject.
"It's (seeking death) the right call," Holmes wrote in an e-mail. "That is why I had a reputation of going for it so much. It is part of the range. Amazingly the public went for it most of the times that we included it in the range. I suspect your experience will be the same."
Rosenthal could not comment on the e-mails because state District Judge Belinda Hill has imposed a gag order on all parties involved in the case. Under an open records request, the Chronicle received Rosenthal's correspondence because they are public record.
Not all of Rosenthal's responses were included. But of the ones that were, he typically answered that his decision was based on evidence and applicable law.
"I do all of this after seeking wisdom from God," Rosenthal wrote one person. "My oath of office requires me follow the law without consideration of public opinion."
The correspondence was sent unsolicited and is not a scientific sampling of how the community feels.
Twenty were for death by lethal injection. Twenty-nine were against. An e-mail from Vote.com, an Internet voting site, said its poll showed 729 were for seeking death in this case, while 495 were against it.
In the weeks and months that followed Andrea Yates's arrest, Rusty Yates emerged as a controversial character. Rusty and Andrea followed a charismatic Christian leader named Michael Woroniecki. Woroniecki claimed to be a prophet and preached in public; over time, Rusty and Andrea moved into a converted bus, where they lived until after having their fourth child. According to newspaper and court accounts, the family moved into a house in Houston where Andrea took care of the children, home schooled the older ones, cared for her ailing mother and father, and appeared to be under a great deal of stress from her lifestyle and from Rusty's expectations.
When Rusty revealed that he had known that Andrea should not be left alone with the children, and yet chose to leave for work the morning of June 20, 2001, before his mother arrived to help Andrea, much public sympathy turned to public outrage. NOW organized fundraisers for Andrea Yates's legal expenses, but, in the weeks and months that followed this article, feminist groups, including NOW, called for some responsibility for the murders of the children to be placed on Rusty Yates.
Andrea Yates's diagnosis of post-partum psychosis triggered intense discussion of the little-known disorder. While seventy-five percent of all women experience "baby blues"—a temporary hormonal shift that makes women weepy and slightly depressed for no longer than ten days post-partum—and ten percent of post-partum women experience post-partum depression, only 0.5 percent, or 1 in 500, women experience post-partum psychosis in the twelve months after giving birth. Andrea Yates's break with reality, her hallucinations, thoughts of harming her children, and difficulties coping with daily life were all components of her disease. As defense lawyers submitted an insanity defense on her behalf for the killings, post-partum psychosis was in the media spotlight.
Texas law and the insanity defense created problems in the trial. Under Texas law, an insanity defense is possible only if the defendant is insane at the time of the killings. The fact that Yates waited until she was alone with the children, had thought about hurting her children for over two years, chased her seven year old and forced him into the bathtub, and then calmly called 911 and then Rusty's workplace indicated intent and careful calculation. A public debate over the definition of insanity ensued.
On March 12, 2002, a Texas jury found Andrea Yates guilty in the murder of three of her children (she was not tried for two of the murders for technical reasons). Because she murdered more than one person, and because some of the murders involved children younger than the age of six, Andrea was eligible for the death penalty. In the end, she was sentenced to life in prison, and was eligible for parole in 2041.
During and after the trial, Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal received a large volume of e-mail, regular mail, and telephone calls requesting that Rusty Yates be held responsible for failing to protect his children. The District Attorney investigated the legalities of charging Rusty, but could find no law under which the father could be tried.
On January 6, 2005, an appeals court overturned Andrea Yates's conviction on the grounds that one of the psychiatrists testifying during the trial had given false testimony. Dr. Park Dietz stated that shortly before Yates murdered her children, an episode of the television series Law and Order had centered around a woman who drowned her children. This testimony was proven to be false; no such episode existed. Andrea Yates would receive a new trial.
NOW stands behind their support of Andrea Yates and their commitment to widespread education and understanding of post-partum mental health issues. In 2004 Rusty Yates filed for divorce from Andrea Yates.
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