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Andrea Yates gets a second chance

Once again, an insanity defense for drowning five kids

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Andrea Yates

(CourtTV) -- For the second time since Andrea Yates drowned her five children in a bathtub, her lawyers will attempt to convince a jury she was legally insane when she did the unthinkable.

With its guilty verdict in 2002, a jury in Houston, Texas, seemed to reject defense arguments that a history of mental illness compounded by postpartum depression drove Yates to drown four sons and a daughter, ages six months to seven years.

The same jury that convicted Yates spared her the death penalty, making her ineligible for death at her retrial, which begins this week. An appeals court overturned the guilty verdict in 2005 based on erroneous testimony from a prosecution mental-health expert.

Opening statements are expected to begin Monday.

From the prosecutors trying Yates to the judge presiding over the trial, much remains the same at the new trial. Once again, Yates is pleading not guilty by reason of insanity to three murder counts.

But this time, lawyers say they are equipped with much more information regarding Yates' state of mind to support the contention that she did not appreciate the difference between right and wrong when she drowned the children on June 20, 2001.

On that day, Yates told police she filled up the tub and held each of her children one by one under the water until they stopped struggling. She then placed four of them on a bed in a back bedroom and covered them with a sheet.

Chased son, 7

In the taped police interview, played in her first trial, Yates described how she chased her oldest son, 7-year-old Noah, through the house before drowning him in the tub and leaving his body floating in the water.

She then placed a call to 911 and to her husband, Russell Yates, to report that she needed "help" with her children.

Yates remained emotionless throughout the narrative, even as she told an officer that she began entertaining the idea of killing her children when she realized she had not been "a good mother" to them.

Faced with the burden of proving that, at the time of the deaths, Yates was suffering from a mental disease that prevented her from understanding the difference between right and wrong, defense lawyer George Parnham pointed to Yates' well-documented history of depression and suicidal tendencies.

Her medical records showed that following the birth of her fourth child, Luke, in 1999, she attempted suicide twice and reported hearing voices and having visions.

Her treating physicians, one of whom testified that she was one of the five sickest patients he had seen in his career, diagnosed her with postpartum depression and put her on a regimen of prescription drugs and continued therapy.

In spite of warnings from her doctors that her condition would worsen with the birth of another child, Yates gave birth to daughter Mary in November 2000. Four months later, Yates' father died, an event which precipitated a decline in her condition, according to testimony by her doctors.

Medication changed

At the time of the deaths, Yates had been out of a mental health facility just over a month. Two days before she drowned the children, Yates' treating physician had lowered the dosage of her antidepressants based on her self-reporting that her condition had improved.

In her confession to police, Yates said that her intent was to kill her children and asked when her trial would be, leading prosecutors to surmise that she appreciated the wrongfulness of her actions.

At her trial, the state's sole mental health expert, Dr. Park Dietz, testified that her call to 911 and her mention of a trial implied she knew that what she had done was wrong.

A consultant for the television drama "Law and Order," Dietz also testified that, in the weeks before Yates killed her children, an episode had aired in which a mother drowned her children in a bathtub and was later found not guilty by reason of insanity.

In its closing argument, the prosecution seized upon the testimony and suggested that Yates, who was known to watch "Law and Order," caught the episode and replicated the events as a "way out."

After Yates was convicted, her lawyers discovered that no such episode existed, and appealed to the state's highest court.

Justices on the Texas State Court of Appeals sided with the argument that Dietz's testimony constituted a grave bias that wrongly influenced the jury's verdict, and ordered a new trial.

Parnham said Yates still suffers from delusions and visions, especially around the anniversary of the deaths of her children.

If convicted, Yates faces life without parole. Even if she is acquitted, however, she faces a substantial period in a mental health facility until her condition improves.

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