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Andrea Yates Sentenced to Life in Prison - 2002-03-16

A jury in the U.S. state of Texas has sentenced a woman to life in prison for the drowning deaths of her children. Andrea Yates was convicted on Tuesday of drowning her children in a bathtub last year. Her lawyers maintain she is mentally ill enough to need treatment rather than prison time.

The eight women and four men of the jury took about 40 minutes to decide to spare the life of Andrea Yates. Under Texas law, the jury had to agree that Yates was a threat to others, and that there were no mitigating circumstances against executing her. The jury could not agree on the first requirement, so answering the second was not necessary.

After the jury's decision was announced, prosecutor Joseph Owmby spoke to reporters outside the courthouse in Houston. "We took no pleasure in prosecuting Mrs. Yates and we take no joy in this result or any result that would have occurred. In a perfect world, the Yates children would be alive and thriving in the midst of a loving family, but in this imperfect world, the best we could do was to see that justice was done for them as victims of a horrendous crime. Justice was done today," the prosecutor said.

Yates was convicted of two counts of capital murder for the drowning of her six-month-old daughter, Mary, and her two sons Noah, seven, and John, five in their home last June. The charges did not cover the deaths of her two other children, Paul, three, and Luke, two. She was accused of calling her children to the bathroom one at a time to kill them. During her trial, Yates' husband and psychiatric experts argued that she suffered from severe postpartum depression and she believed she had no choice but to kill her children to save them from Satan. Yates' brother, Patrick Kennedy spoke Friday afternoon on behalf of the family.

"We do not, as a family, believe that justice was accomplished here, because we believe a sick person has been sent to prison for 40 years," Mr. Kennedy said.

Under Texas law, Andrea Yates will be eligible for parole in 40 years.

Prosecutors have acknowledged Yates was mentally ill, but they argued she still knew right from wrong. For example, they said, she called the police after killing her children to turn herself in. But Yates' psychiatrist Lucy Puryear says knowing something is wrong does not mean a person is responsible for her actions.

"The statute says you have to know the difference between right and wrong. You can be totally illogical and irrational but if someone asks you if you know it is illegal to kill someone, you can answer yes. That does not mean you are sane," he said.

Prosecutors also said Yates' actions were a form of revenge against her husband Russell Yates, whom they portrayed as domineering. Russell Yates has been working with defense attorneys hoping to get his wife acquitted of capital murder charges.

"Unfortunately, most people do not understand the biochemical nature of depression. It is a biochemical brain disease that was mistreated in Andrea's case. Let go until she developed a severe psychosis and believed things that were not real and acted upon them," Mr. Yates said.

He calls the life prison sentence better than the death penalty, but not much better.

The National Organization for Women has supported Yates, saying the case illustrated the need for more education about postpartum depression. Prosecutor Kaylynn Williford said the real issue to her is five dead children.

"Every case involving the death of a child is horrific. Any case involving the death of a family member or friend has been horrific. Magnify that times five, with what these children went through. It has been very emotionally totaling," the prosecutor said.

Andrea Yates twice tried to kill herself before killing her children. She was also hospitalized four times for psychiatric treatment, the last time just a month before she killed her children. On Friday, a human rights group called CCHR Texas filed a complaint with Texas health regulators, claiming Yates received poor mental health care.

Her attorney Wendell Odom hopes the Yates case will change the way the criminal justice system looks at mentally ill people who commit crimes.

"This was a difficult defeat for us, but if anything, we at least raised certain issues in the mind of the public. If we did that, then at least our defense was not in vain," he said.

In his final statements before jurors began deliberating Friday, Mr. Odom said Yates will live the rest of her life knowing what she has done, and there can be no greater punishment.