- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 16, 2002

HOUSTON A jury deliberated for less than an hour yesterday and spared Andrea Yates from the death penalty. The mentally ill housewife was sentenced to life in prison for drowning her five children in the bathtub.

She must serve at least 40 years before becoming eligible for parole. She is 37.

She stood while the verdict was read, her attorney's arm around her, but had no apparent reaction.

The jury, which took less than four hours to reject her claim of insanity and convict her of murder on Tuesday, returned the sentence with similar speed after prosecutors made a less-than-forceful push for the death penalty.

Her five children "never had a chance, and you need to think about those children," prosecutor Kaylynn Williford said in closing arguments of the penalty phase. But avoiding a forceful call for the death penalty, she said: "Whatever decision you make, the state will accept."

To impose the death penalty, the jury of eight women and four men had to decide unanimously that the defendant was a future danger and that there were no mitigating circumstances against executing her. The jury answered "no" to the first question, and therefore, did not have to answer the second.

The defendant's husband, Russell, had no reaction as he watched in the courtroom. His brother, Randy Yates, nodded affirmatively. Andrea Yates' sister, sitting across the courtroom, wiped tears from her eyes. As she was led from the courtroom by officers, she looked back toward her mother and siblings.

The sentence brought a swift end to a case that began on June 20, when the wet and bedraggled woman called police to her home and showed them the bodies of her five children, ages 6 months to 7 years. She had called them into the bathroom and drowned them one by one.

At trial, her attorneys and her husband argued that she suffered from severe postpartum depression and that she believed she had no choice but to kill her children to save them from the clutches of Satan. Prosecutors acknowledged she was mentally ill, but said she could tell right from wrong, and thus was not legally insane at the time of the killings.

The case stirred new debate over the legal standard for mental illness and whether postpartum depression was properly recognized and taken seriously. Women's groups had harshly criticized prosecutors for pushing for the death penalty.

Before the trial, prosecutors had offered to take the death penalty off the table in exchange for a guilty plea. After the jury rejected her claim that she was innocent by reason of insanity, prosecutors offered no new evidence or witnesses during the penalty phase, saying all the evidence had been laid out during the trial.

Prosecutors in their closing arguments said the mother's life shouldn't be more important than the lives of her five children.

"It's not just about Andrea Yates," said Miss Williford, holding an exhibit with the photos of the five slain children. "It's about Noah, John, Paul, Luke and Mary."

While Miss Williford never directly told jurors what punishment they should choose, she said she thought they could answer the two questions posed to them in a way that would result in death by injection.

"This crime is the crime of ultimate betrayal: the ultimate betrayal of a mother to her children," Miss Williford said. "Those children never had a chance."

Defense attorneys pleaded for her life, saying she wasn't a future danger and her mental illness, background and character spoke volumes about why she should receive a life term rather than death.

"You may believe that the defendant knew the wrongfulness of her actions, but that does not mean you don't believe she was mentally ill," defense attorney Wendell Odom told jurors. "She will live the rest of her life knowing what she's done. When it comes to punishment, there can be no greater punishment."

Mr. Odom told jurors the state never presented an expert to testify during the brief punishment phase that the woman would be a future danger. He said she killed her children out of love, which "mitigates against the death penalty."

"If you follow the law, you do the right thing," he said. "If you don't follow the law, a woman dies and we all have to live with that."

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