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Jury Decides Andrea Yates Will Spend Life in Prison

Aired March 15, 2002 - 14:28   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: I want to break away from the news alert right now and bring you what we are hearing right now. Apparently, there has been a verdict from this jury, and Ed Lavandera about 10 minutes ago suggesting that possibly would not take long, and apparently it has not. On the previous stage of this trial, jurors were out for just about three and a half hours.

As we await that decision in Houston, we're going to bring in Cynthia Alksne back with us, once again, former federal prosecutor. Many folks probably not surprised by this. Perhaps the decision was made potentially during the previous phase of that trial, Cynthia?

CYNTHIA ALKSNE, FORMER PROSECUTOR: Right. It might very well have been that they determined they were not going to give her the not guilty by reason of insanity, but also were not going to give her the death penalty. I mean, this is very, very quick, in any event. This jury barely had time, you know, to have any conversation before they have come up with such an important decision.

HEMMER: All right, Cynthia, we are waiting right now and watching for this. Was there anything you picked up on during the closing arguments we heard today from either side that may lead you to conclude possibly one thing or another? I know it's very difficult to read jurors in just about every case.

ALKSNE: One thing that strikes me from looking at the entire trial, and that is that the closing statements in the guilt phase of the trial apparently didn't have much effect on the determination, because the jury had already made up their mind -- they must have been, given the speed. And my guess would be that the same is true today -- that the closing statements, while important to the lawyers and to family members, were probably not that important for the jurors, in terms of them making up their mind. They understood. The law is pretty straightforward. And they understood it from the judge's instructions, and knew, my guess would be, what they were going to do.

HEMMER: Listening to the prosecutors just earlier today, they did not give a recommendation in front of the jury panel there, as to what they would like them to conclude. Is there a suggestion, there -- I know you mentioned it earlier -- that the prosecution essentially has already won this case?

ALKSNE: Oh, sure. The prosecution won this case resoundingly, when there was no not guilty by reason of insanity. And at this point, it doesn't really matter to them what the end result is. You know, the district attorney has announced from the beginning that he thought it was going to be up to jury to decide. And he felt comfortable with really any result they had. I thought the prosecutors effectively communicated that today, that it didn't matter to them, how the jury voted.

HEMMER: We are watching a monitor, Cynthia. This, clearly, is videotape from a previous time. But we're watching a monitor right now. Once the court reconvenes there in Houston, we'll bring it to our viewers.

One thing the prosecution did today, is they put up a rather large photo, a picture of each one of the Yates children. And to quote the prosecutor, if I can get the quote right, "This is what this case is all about: state's exhibit 242." When they showed that once again, they're reminding jurors again, ultimately here, five young children, innocent children, paid the ultimate punishment here.

ALKSNE: Right. You know, for prosecutors the case is always about the victims. And it may have been frustrating for them, over the course of the trial, that it appeared different times that the focus of the case was changing, and it was really all about Ms. Yates and whether or not she was sick, and the course of her treatment. And prosecutors are there, fighting for the victims. And they wanted to bring that back home to the jury again.

But apparently, the jury hasn't had trouble remembering what the case is about, just based on their initial verdict.

HEMMER: I'm watching this monitor, it could be at any moment. We essentially do not know. There is a big part of the defense lawyers today raising the issue of, is she a danger to society. I think it's fair at this point for you to refresh our memories right now, for the burden to be met in this case. Is that ultimately the decision jurors must answer?

ALKSNE: The jury had two questions that they had to decide unanimously. And the burden rested -- I'm sorry. The burden rested with the government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that one, she was not a threat to society and two, that there were no mitigating circumstances.

Now, in this case, when you look at threat to society, what we're talking about is, considering the facts and circumstances of this case, whether or not the defendant, or Ms. Yates, had any prior criminal history, and whether or not she had any other threats to anybody else. What happened in the course of her treatment? Did she threaten other people's children? Did she threaten her husband? Had she in any way been a threat? And, of course, the answer to all of those questions was no, she hadn't been.

I was struck as I was reading the death penalty cases in Texas -- and of course, death penalty cases anywhere -- when jurors have an opportunity to look at this threat to society, how often it is that the defendant has prior murders, prior burglaries, prior robberies. All kinds of violence in their past, and threats to prison guards and threats to other people.

As you compare what is a classic death penalty case and this case, you recognize that this woman is a very different type of defendant. So, that was an important point, her no criminal record, for the defense attorneys.

HEMMER: Cynthia, hang on one second there in Washington. We're going to go back to Houston right now. Ed Lavandera is back with us. And, Ed, what do you have for us? Is the jury back in the courtroom just yet, or do we know that?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We've got folks up there who are relaying information to us. We know that the jury went into deliberations at 12:51, Central time, so now it's about 1:30, so we're looking at about 40 minutes of deliberations. And by all indications, a lot of the speculation here has been that a lot of people anticipated that this verdict would come back quickly.

Of course, it was up to prosecution to say -- to prove, the burden of proof was on them, to show that Andrea Yates would be a future danger to society in the future. And a lot of folks looking at what the prosecution did, in not calling any witnesses. And the closing arguments this afternoon, this morning, saying to the jury that they would be happy with whatever decision they came back with, and that they would live with whatever they ruled -- Bill.

HEMMER: Ed, let's show our viewers right now what's at stake here. And as we say that, clearly the future for Andrea Yates, whether or not she spends the rest of her life in prison or whether or not she's sent to death row. Do we have that just yet? There it is.

Life in prison is the one option, 40 years minimum with no parole. That, in the sentencing phase right now. The other option, death by lethal injection, sent to death row in the state of Texas.

Ed, I'm curious to know, you've been in that courtroom so often for the past four and a half, five weeks. How have jurors reacted visibly, that you've been able to see, throughout this testimony?

LAVANDERA: You know, early on, when the prosecution was putting on its case in the first week, which included the emotional evidence of just establishing that a crime had been committed, because that is what the prosecution had to prove, that Andrea Yates did commit these murders, even though throughout the months leading up to this trial, no one argued or disputed that point.

But when they showed the pictures, there was the videotape of the crime scene, police officer walking through the house with the video camera, showing the bathtub and the room where the four children had been laid out on the bed in the master bedroom. All of that was very emotional.

As the trial progressed into the medical testimony, you could see that the jury became a lot more intense, in terms of, you know, I think they grasped the understanding that there is a lot of heavy duty medical testimony and psychiatric information that they had to devour. So many different words and new vocabulary that they've had to pick up over the course of the past month, everything they had to deal with.

So I think toward the end they started becoming a lot more focused and serious, in terms of listening to the heaver and the more technical information that they had to listen to, other than the emotional testimony of the officers that first arrived on the scene, the confession Andrea Yates gave to those police officers, and the confessions that she later gave at the police station.

And then in the subsequent interviews, that Andrea Yates had done with psychiatrists, in explaining to her all the mental issues that she had dealt with. So there was definitely a very emotional side, and yet a very technical side that they've had to deal with.

HEMMER: What about the reaction from Andrea Yates herself? Many times when I have seen her through the live feed or through videotape, she appears to be staring straight ahead, or possibly down at the desk in front of her. Oftentimes her head, like we see now, her head in her hand. Did it ever deviate much from that, Ed?

LAVANDERA: Well, it was often hard to see exactly what Andrea Yates was doing. Her back was to the courtroom most of the time. The only time she would look out into the audience would be when she'd walk in or out of the courtroom at the beginning or end of the day. Often she would glance over at her mother who, toward the end of the trial, was allowed to sit inside the courtroom and see her.

There were obviously very emotional moments for her. Her attorneys have said she kind of comes and goes, in times where it's very fluid for her. There were often times, depending on how the medication was affecting her, her attorneys say, it would depend on whether or not she was paying attention perhaps, more closely to certain things that were said.

But definitely, the times where prosecutors were laying out that she was the one -- at one point during closing arguments, the prosecutor coming over to Andrea Yates. And I think the camera at that time was focused in on Andrea Yates. But the prosecutor stood in front of her and pointed directly at her, saying this was the woman who drowned the five children, the very children she brought into this world. And those were the moments where it became very emotional for her.

LAVANDERA: Ed, you mentioned a few moments ago, 40 minutes of deliberations in this phase. Three and a half hours for the previous phase. Take us back to that. Were people in general surprised, knowing the bulk of evidence that was sitting in front of these jurors, that they would only be out a bit less than four hours time?

LAVANDERA: And that's what everyone has been talking about over the last couple of days. We're all very anxious to hear what this jury might have to say, in terms of what they talked about when they were in the deliberating room, and how much attention they placed on all of the medical testimony.

Thirty-eight witnesses, more than 100 hours of testimony that was given. I think we reported it was 12 psychiatrists or medical experts from the prosecution side. A medical expert from the prosecutor's side. There was a lot of information to weed through. And plus, information that we reported on over the last nine months, the hundreds and hundreds of pages of medical documents, dating back to 1999. That's a lot of information.

HEMMER: On death row right now, Ed, there are several women in the state of Texas. Update us on those cases. And I understand there are at least two women in the state of Texas on death row right now, who have been convicted for killing their own children.

LAVANDERA: Yes, on Texas death row, the women's unit, which is just outside of Waco, there are eight women on death row. You're right. Two of those women were convicted of murdering their own children. But still, with everything we've seen, prosecutors and most legal experts in the state will say that it's still rare for women to be found -- put to death.

And they also say, as you see there Andrea arriving into the courtroom, they also say it's very difficult. There have only been two women executed in Texas since 1900. So these cases are rare, and perhaps that's why we pay such close attention to them.

HEMMER: Ed, thank you. Ed Lavandera there in Houston. We will not leave Ed very long. Cynthia Alksne still with us in Washington, D.C. The former federal prosecutor who has helped lead us through this trial from the very beginning. Now in the courtroom, Andrea Yates.


Madame foreperson, has the jury reached a verdict in each case? Will you please pass it to the bailiff.

Ms. Yates, please stand.

In cause number 880205, the state of Texas versus Andrea Pia Yates, as special issue No. 1, the jury returns the following verdict: We, the jury, because at least 10 jurors have a reasonable doubt as to the probability that the defendant, Andrea Pia Yates, would commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing threat to society, determine the answer to special issue No. 1 is no. Signed, foreman of the jury.

In cause number 883590, the jury answers special issue No. 1 in the following manner: We, the jury, because at least 10 jurors have a reasonable doubt as to the probability that defendant, Andrea Pia Yates, would commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing threat to society, determine that the answer to this special issue is no. Signed, foreman of the jury.

And as to each verdict, the jury certifies that we, the jury, return in open court the above answers to the special issues submitted to us, and the same as our verdict in this case. And that is as to each case. Does either side wish to have the jury polled?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, your honor. HILL: Very well. You may be seated, Ms. Yates.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I would like to join with the lawyers at this time in expressing my heartfelt thanks to each and every one of you for the sacrifices that you've made over the past four weeks of this case. As Mr. Owmby said in his opening statement, as the defense lawyers have said, we know it was a sacrifice to each and every one of you.

And as Mr. Owmby also said, perhaps more difficult for you all than for us, because you were away from your families for such a long period of time. We are certainly proud of you and we thank you very much for the hard work that you put in on this case. You are now released from the admonitions which I previously had given you, which means you may discuss this case with anyone you choose. If you choose not to discuss this case, that's certainly your right as well.

At this time, I'm now going to excuse you to the jury room. I will be back to discharge you from the jury room. All rise for the jury, please.

HEMMER: If Judge Hill has further instructions in court, we shall listen here. But the verdict has been handed down. Andrea Yates will spend life in prison. Ineligible for parole for a minimum of 40 years. And, Cynthia Alksne, many people at this point will apparently not be surprised, based on what we heard earlier today in court.

ALKSNE: No, I'm not surprised at all. And you'll notice that they -- the jury had two questions to answer. But if they answered no, she was not a threat to society, they did not have to answer the second question. That's why the judge didn't read the second question.

HEMMER: Do you think people are surprised, because in the state of Texas, a state that has a pretty well-known public image about capital punishment cases?

ALKSNE: No, I don't think so because of her mental illness. But certainly, the state of Texas has this public image about capital punishment, and Houston may be the place where they have that comes from. But, most people realize this woman was crazy as a loon. And she was really not a future threat to anyone, except perhaps herself.

HEMMER: We are being told, Cynthia, that Russell Yates may come to a microphone there in Houston at any moment. We will bring you his comments, if he does indeed have any, live here in a moment.

But, Cynthia, a more technical question here. When the judge read the verdict, saying that at least 10 jurors have a reasonable doubt that she will not cause harm, why is it, under Texas law, that 10 jurors have to decide this one way or the other?

ALKSNE: Well, actually, in order to say yes, it has to be unanimous. But in order to say no, it only has to be less than 10. And that's (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the numbers in the statute. But if it's not unanimous, the judge will go ahead and sentence her to life. So for all practical purposes, anything less than unanimous is going to be life in prison.

HEMMER: All right, Cynthia, stand by there in Washington. Back to Houston, Ed Lavandera. Ed, if you're with us, much reaction just yet?

LAVANDERA: No, we're waiting. CNN's Gary Tuchman is in the courtroom and he should be making his way down shortly so we can get a little bit of reaction from folks who were inside the courtroom. Our seat inside there, as I've mentioned before, is just across the aisle from Russell Yates and his family. Andrea Yates's family sits on the other side of the courtroom.

But we do suspect that we'll be able to hear some reaction as to how -- you might imagine, Russell Yates, of course very relieved by what has just happened. And we do anticipate, if you might be able to look here off to the side, we do understand that prosecutors and defense attorneys do plan on coming out and holding a press conference here. This is just on the side of the courthouse, here in downtown Houston. So they should be making their way, we're told, and sharing with us their thoughts.

Of course, there's been a gag order in place throughout most of the trial. And even though we've been able to bring you a few snippets here and there, from what attorneys have been able to tell us, we'll now be able to flesh out a lot more of the issues that have been brought up in this case, and what prosecutors and defense attorneys have been thinking over the course of the last four weeks -- Bill.

HEMMER: Ed, earlier I asked you about Andrea Yates, her state of mind, her behavior inside the courtroom. What do we know about medication for that woman right now?

LAVANDERA: Well, she's on -- she takes a daily dosage of Haldol which. if you've been following this trial closely, you've learned that it is an anti-psychotic medication. As one of the attorneys described it to me, it's one of the most powerful antipsychotic medications you can take.

She takes a daily dosage of that. She also takes two dosages of anti-depressive medication everyday. And as need, there's another medication called Ativan, which is designed to help you -- for example, when psychiatrists meet with Andrea Yates, a lot of times they say she just shuts down and has trouble answering questions, and just kind of withdraws from everything around her. So the Ativan is designed to help her open up and speak more openly about what happens. But that's not given on a daily basis.

At the very beginning of this trial, you may remember in opening statements, defense attorneys said that the very reason that she's able to sit in the courtroom and pay attention to what's going on is because of the medications she's been taking on a daily basis. They say that she's come a very long way from the day she was arrested to this point right now. HEMMER: Yet, if you remember during the initial phase, the initial sentencing, when she was found guilty earlier, she came into the courtroom. Many people remarked that they saw a smile or a smirk on her face for the very first time. On the jury now, we know eight women, four men. Two, apparently, have degrees in psychology. Quite a curious fact thereabout, the jury makeup. What more do we know about them, Ed?

LAVANDERA: We know that they're obviously from Houston, eight women, four men. We also know, I was talking to a defense attorney a couple days ago, and he was saying that -- we've talked a lot about two of the women who studied psychology. He was leading me to believe that there were actually a few more who had perhaps psychological education in their background.

The defense attorneys said that going into this, they really felt that they had the best jury that they could have picked. And of course they were concerned, because to be picked for this jury you had to be willing to say that you're willing to administer the death penalty, if it ever reached that point. That you're able to follow the letter of the law.

So, outside of that, the defense attorney said that they had a jury that they were very comfortable with.

HEMMER: Ed, listen. As we await the attorneys, if indeed, they are going to make comments, what do we know about -- you've been in Houston for a long time, frankly, throughout this trial -- how is that community reacting, knowing this case was under way there?

LAVANDERA: It's hard to say. This is a story that's dominated headlines since June 20 of last year. So as any story that gets so much media attention, not only here in this country, but on a national level and on an international level, obviously there are a lot of people who are probably tired of it.

But at the same time there are a lot of people who -- in fact, outside in front of the courthouse today, there are anti-death penalty advocates coming out and making their case. Andrea Yates has had a lot of supporters. And it's definitely -- it's raised up so many different issues that people have focused on and debated over, over the course of the last nine months, that in terms of that, it's hard not to say that, whether or not you're tired of the story, it's definitely a story they've paid attention to. Because there are so many different sides to it and so many different issues that it raises for everyone. Not only just on a personal level.

HEMMER: Fair point. Ed, stand by in Houston.

Just to recap for our viewers, Andrea Yates a short time ago, after about 40 minutes of deliberations, that jury, eight women and four men, have returned a verdict for where Andrea Yates will be sentenced to life in prison behind bars. Not eligible for parole for a minimum of 40 years time. This, for the drowning deaths of her five young children in her bathroom in her home in Houston, Texas, back in June of last year. To Cynthia Alksne in Washington once again. You know, many times, Cynthia, we go through these court cases and we find, truly, let's say, a level of awareness has been raised for one issue or another. Did you gauge a level of awareness that was raised for postpartum depression, postpartum psychosis? And now do we, possibly those who pay attention to trials like these, have a better understanding of them?

ALKSNE: Well, somewhat. I actually think the issue that has come to the forefront from this trial is a legal issue. And that is that the jury is not told, when they are deliberating, that if they find a person guilty -- not guilty, I'm sorry -- by reason of insanity, that the person won't just go free.

They are not told that the person will actually go to a mental health facility and the state will take control of them, and the judge will decide when they can get out and when they're no longer a threat to the society. This jury didn't know that. And that may very well have affected their deliberations.

HEMMER: How so?

ALKSNE: Well, they certainly didn't -- if they had given not guilty by reason of insanity, and they didn't know that she was just not going to walk scot-free, she very well have had more children with Mr. Yates. After all, there was a lot of testimony that they were going to have all of the children God would give them.

So that could have been a fear for them. We don't want her to get out and have more children, and kill someone else and be a threat to someone else, if there's a not guilty by reason of insanity. Defense attorneys all over the country have said, hey, it's really fair to tell the jury that these people, when you give them not guilty by reason of insanity, they're not getting out of jail right away.

I think there is some movement within different communities to push to change the law in that aspect that. And that actually may be the legacy of this case. More important than an increased awareness of postpartum depression.

HEMMER: Interesting response, there. Did you take anything away from this, as to -- I know earlier in the week we were talking about, you didn't feel the prosecution was as strong as you would probably have been yourself in the courtroom.

ALKSNE: Oh, let's -- I can't second-guess that one. The prosecution -- what I said in the week was, I was very critical of the quality of the closing arguments by one of the prosecutors. The other prosecutor, the female prosecutor, gave a fine closing argument, not only factually, but strategically and tactically. She was an excellent prosecutor. It was the male prosecutor I thought was weak, and wasted his opportunity.

HEMMER: But truth be known, in the court of law, insanity is a tough road to go, in terms of accomplishing that in terms of defense. Would you not agree with that? ALKSNE: Oh, I completely agree. And I think jurors -- not only is the law difficult, but jurors have a skepticism about it. Because they think, oh, sure, you're trying to get off and you've made that up. It's a very difficult case. But it is surprising to me that not even one juror was really willing to consider the insanity defense in this case, because the evidence was pretty strong that she was crazy.

HEMMER: Yes, but what the jurors had to decide at that moment, did she know right from wrong, correct? And based on the evidence about calling police, waiting for her husband, Russell, to leave for work that day, filling up the bathtub. Things like these possible led jurors to conclude, indeed she did know the difference at that moment.

ALKSNE: Right. And there is even more. She said, to the different psychiatrists, that she had thought about it for about two years. She had ruled out using a knife to kill them because it was too bloody. And of course she waited for her husband to leave. Hurried to get it done before her mother-in-law arrived. And then tricked each child, during the course of the murders, so that they wouldn't know their brother and sister had already been murdered.

So there was some evidence that she recognized that she had to hide this. And then when she called the police, of course, she said she was ready to be punished.

HEMMER: What becomes of Andrea Yates now?

ALKSNE: Wow. You know, I was an assistant attorney general in Texas and I've spent a lot of time in jails there. It's not going to be a wonderful life. She'll go to this prison and she'll get psychiatric assistance. And she'll spend a lot of time by herself, because it won't rally be safe for her to be in general population.

It's going to be a long, grim life. And of course, if they do medicate her and make her feel better, you only have to be a parent to know, imagine what life will be like for her if she ever realizes and becomes well enough to understand that she has murdered her children.

HEMMER: Back to Houston, Ed Lavandera, same question. What indeed becomes of her, now that the verdict has been announced?

ALKSNE: Well, there is a unit, a prison unit, about 150 miles southeast of Dallas, in Rusk, Texas, where we're pretty certain that's where Andrea Yates will be headed. And there is a psychiatric unit where Andrea Yates can receive medical attention and psychiatric help over the course of the next 40 years.

And one of the witnesses who testified during the punishment phase was an expert on the mentally ill here in Texas, and what the psychiatric help is like in the Texas prison system. And that witness -- this is a defense witness, obviously, said the care is very good.

Obviously, the Yates family has expressed a lot of concern about just exactly what kind of help she will be getting. They would have much rather have seen her in a state mental hospital for an undetermined amount of time to help that. Obviously, that's not going to happen at this point. But according to this witness the defense put on yesterday, there is plenty of psychiatric help that Andrea Yates will be accessible to.

HEMMER: All right, Ed.

For our viewers now, we're going to go back just about 25 minutes ago and replay the reading of the verdict. Here is Judge Hill in that courtroom in Houston, Texas.


HILL: We the jury, because at least 10 jurors have a reasonable doubt as to the probability the defendant, Andrea Yates, would commit criminal acts that that will constitute a continuing threat to society, determine that the answer to special issue No. 1 is no. Signed, foreman of the jury.

In cause number 883590, the jury answered special issue No. 1 in the following manner: We the jury, because at least 10 jurors have a reasonable doubt as to the probability the defendant, Andrea Pia Yates, would commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute continual threat to society, determine that the answer to this special issue is no. Signed, foreman of the jury.

And as to each verdict, the jury certifies that we, the jury, return in open court the above answers to the special issues submitted to us, and the same as our verdict in this case, and that is as to each case. Does either side wish to have the jury polled?



HILL: Very well, you may be seated, Ms. Yates.


HEMMER: Both deliberations, by my watch, took about four hours and 10 minutes. Three and a half of the first phase, 40 minutes for this phase today. Andrea Yates, life in prison the sentence handed down there in the courtroom in Houston, Texas.

And again, we do anticipate the strong possibility lawyers from both sides coming to a microphone there outside the courtroom. When and if that happens, we'll bring it to you live. Also getting word that Russell Yates may speak as well, the father. We'll have that for you if indeed that takes place, as well.




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