Otherworldly

A loving mother drowned her children. It's hard to believe no one could stop her.

The camera tracks through the house. It flickers past school desks, blue cereal bowls and a dog kennel. There is no sound as it sweeps down a hallway. There's a brief peek inside a bathroom, a slow pan along a sink, then further in, where the bathtub stands.

A boy is doing the dead man's float. He's wearing pajamas in the bathtub. But he never comes up for air. He just lies there, facedown, his head at the opposite end of the bathtub from the faucets.

Leaving the bathroom, the camera catches happy family photographs along the hallway. It looks inside a room filled with bunk beds. It records a closet and venetian blinds with as much attention as it paid to the boy it has left behind.

As Andrea Yates descended deeper into psychosis, she was convinced her children were doomed.
David Terrill
As Andrea Yates descended deeper into psychosis, she was convinced her children were doomed.
As Andrea Yates descended deeper into psychosis, she was convinced her children were doomed.
David Terrill
As Andrea Yates descended deeper into psychosis, she was convinced her children were doomed.

The camera heads for the master bedroom. It records a brief glimpse of a couple of children lying peacefully in a bed. The camera moves into the hallway for a close-up of a child's single white sock. The camera goes back into the bedroom. There's another quick look at the children during an inventory of closet and master bathroom.

Then the camera swings back to the bed. Three boys and a baby lie together under a sheet on a mattress on the floor, their faces showing. They don't move. They don't look. They're all dead. A little while before they were eating their breakfast cereal, laughing and kidding around. They're all dead now. No blood. A white froth comes out of the noses of three of them. A hand reaches out and pulls back the sheet to show their entire bodies, the boys in pajamas, the baby in a one-piece outfit. Then back to the faces. Close-up time. The camera settles and stays, as unmoving as the children.

In another room, the children's 36-year-old mother stares into space with equally lifeless eyes. Andrea Yates has just drowned all her children, called the police and her husband, Rusty, at work and is now waiting patiently for the officers to tell her what to do. Her hair is matted, she's soaking wet, covered with some of the same water she used to kill her children.

Wait, this last part is not on the June 20, 2001, tape. Investigators didn't think to include the mother who greeted Officer David Knapp at the door with the words "I just killed my kids" in that day's filming. Some say that's because authorities didn't want any record of how disoriented, how pathetic she looked, which might convey a certain something to the jury. Others say that's pure nonsense.

Sense, or the lack of it, that's the crucial question before us today, ladies and gentlemen. Was Andrea Yates so crazy last June 20 that she could not tell right from wrong, and so should be found innocent of capital murder?

Or was she just sort of crazy, so that she did, in fact, know right from wrong and thus should be sentenced to die?

Yates knows what she did now, holding on to reality thanks to her daily 15 milligrams of Haldol, an antipsychotic. The tall, gaunt woman sobbed in the courtroom last week when a photograph close-up was shown of her dead son Paul. But what she knows now and what she knew on June 20, when she had no antipsychotic medicine in her system, are two different matters, the defense contends. Her family -- representing the murderer and the victims both -- wants her to live. The state says relentlessly that she should still be held accountable with the maximum punishment allowed by law.

Because, as prosecutors Joe Owmby and Kaylynn Williford keep reminding the jury, there is still the matter of those five bodies. Noah, age seven; John, five; Paul, three; Luke, two; and Mary, six months. Young children with biblical names, their deaths standing in horrific testament to something gone very wrong.


The prosecution hit some pretty low moments in the trial, such as when they took the clothes the children were wearing when they died and pinned them to boards like a champion butterfly display. Defense attorneys George Parnham and Wendell Odom argued this was done only to inflame and prejudice the jury. Lead prosecutor Owmby said it was needed to show the size of the children, insisting photographs wouldn't do that.

It was also less than admirable when Owmby called 63-year-old Dora Yates to the stand to identify her grandbabies by their photographs. At least the pictures weren't from any of the sets taken after they'd died.

Owmby in his opening statement had declared he wouldn't put Rusty Yates through the pain of testimony. He had no such compunctions about Rusty's mom, and increasingly his questions of her grew more heated and badgering. Dora had come from her home in Hermitage, Tennessee, for a visit in April. Once here, she decided to stay a while since Andrea was ill, she testified.

"Andrea appeared almost always catatonic. She did not respond if I asked her a question…She would stare into space. She would tremble, her arms especially," Dora testified. Andrea sometimes forgot to feed the children. She would walk in circles inside the house, sometimes making 30 to 45 loops with baby Mary on her hip. Dora never asked her about this; she testified she thought Andrea was trying to exercise, to be healthy without going out into the Houston heat.

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