- The Washington Times - Monday, July 2, 2001

HOUSTON — As the public tries to understand what prompted Andrea Pia Yates to drown her five small children, a great deal of speculation surrounds her expected medical/psychological defense.
Talk-show hosts in several Texas cities have discussed little else. Television networks and daily newspapers have asked whether Mrs. Bates, 36, should be given the ultimate sentence — death by injection — for killing her children on June 20.
Medical experts have weighed in with their expertise on the causes and effects of postpartum depression. Legal scholars, jury-picking experts and practitioners have discussed past similar cases. Advocacy groups have taken their stands.
After a preliminary hearing last week, District Judge Belinda Hill ordered a gag order, so participants — lawyers, investigators, family and friends — have stopped discussing the gruesome details. But before the gag order, several things became apparent:
c The decision to try Mrs. Yates on a death penalty charge would be a tough one, with strong voices on both sides — making District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal's call somewhat of a political football.
c So much was disclosed about Mrs. Yates' postpartum depression and possible psychosis that the case — unless plea-bargained — will likely become a showcase for psychological examination.
Winning a death-penalty conviction against a mother with known psychiatric problems for murdering her children is extremely rare. Of 56 women on death rows across the U.S., nine are there for killing their children. None of the nine used insanity as a defense.
But while it seems difficult to win a death sentence in such cases, few defendants seem to try insanity pleas. Law experts generally agree the defense is uncommon because it requires absolute proof of a condition that is still considered somewhat fuzzy — the workings of the human mind.
"To be found not guilty by reason of insanity in Texas," said Geary Reamey, criminal law professor at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, "the accused must have a mental illness or defect so severe that he or she did not know the crime was wrong."
University of Houston law professor Sandra Guerra said the defense was often used as a "last resort." She said Mrs. Yates would have a tough time proving she didn't know what she had done was wrong. "She immediately called the police," said Mrs. Guerra, "which indicates she understood that this was a criminal matter."
One who tried a mental defense and failed was Christina Riggs, an Arkansas woman who poisoned her two children with potassium chloride a few years ago. She was executed last year.
In another case, Maggie Young, 38, drowned five of her seven children in a bathtub in a Honolulu suburb while her husband, an Air Force captain, was away on a mission.
Mrs. Young, who previously had spent several weeks in an army hospital for a mental breakdown, was deemed unfit to stand trial and was confined to a mental hospital. Six months later she escaped and hanged herself in a small shed on the hospital grounds.
"She had just started responding and had begun to grasp the enormity of what she had done," hospital administrator Audrey Mertz told a Honolulu newspaper.
James Young, the father in the Hawaii tragedy, e-mailed the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, last Monday, pleading for Mrs. Yates. "This ill woman does not need to be sentenced to prison — certainly not charged with first-degree murder," he wrote.
Dick DeGuerin, a Houston defense lawyer, said the pressures on the district attorney will be intense.
"This will be a real test of Rosenthal's ability to control the mad-dog element of this — prosecutors who lather at the prospect of trying a highly publicized case and asking for the death penalty," Mr. DeGuerin told the Houston Chronicle.

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