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


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.

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.

Owmby attacked Dora for her use of the word "catatonic." She had never mentioned that in her initial interview with investigators, he said. Hadn't she told a friend that Andrea was better?

Dora was the one who caught Andrea filling up a tub of water about two months before June 20 and asked her what she was doing. "I'm going to need it," Andrea replied. In her statement to police, Andrea said she meant to kill the children that day, but something stopped her. On June 20 she knew she had about an hour between the time her husband left for work and her mother-in-law arrived.

If you thought Andrea was so sick, why didn't you take her to a different doctor? Owmby hammered. Dora had been coming in each morning around 8:15, and staying till 5:30 or six at night. Why had she decided to come in later in the day?

Finally, Dora confessed that she was just worn out. "Around Memorial Day I started coming in a little later and leaving a little earlier. I was exhausted. I needed to pace myself."

Rusty Yates was locked out of his own house. He'd had the call from his wife. His kids were dead and his wife was being held in the case. Officer Frank Stumpo, while not allowing Rusty in, offered to get him a drink of water. As he turned to go into the house, Stumpo testified, Rusty "stated to me I'd be lucky to find clean glasses around."

A shot at his wife's housekeeping at a time like this? Rusty Yates has suffered an incredible tragedy. But don't overlook his no-small-part in the events leading up to this.

Or as one fiftyish courtroom watcher put it last week to the Metro trolley driver taking him down to 301 San Jacinto, "No, I'm not watching the Yates trial. Unless her husband's on trial with her, it's not a real trial."

The Yateses had five children in their eight years of marriage. Although she'd been a good student at Milby High School and held a nursing degree and worked at M.D. Anderson hospital, after her first baby, Andrea became a stay-at-home mom.

They lived in a house at first, but they later moved into a converted Greyhound bus. Packed in all day with the toddlers, she became pregnant again. What followed was a bout of postpartum depression with Luke. That didn't stop the baby train, though. Andrea became pregnant with Mary.

Andrea tried to kill herself twice, once with a knife to her throat (Rusty was able to get it away from her) and once by overdosing on her father's medication (she got her stomach pumped on that one). She grew increasingly depressed after her father's death.

While Rusty went to work each day at NASA, she stayed home with the kids with next to no interaction with adults. They never hired a baby-sitter, so time to herself was simply not in Andrea's life.

The couple, although religious, were further isolated because they belonged to no local church. They did family Bible readings at home. Discipline was strict, and people who knew the family described the children as extremely well behaved.

Rusty did take her for mental health treatment, but switched from Spring Shadows Glen, where she had seemed to improve, to the Devereux Texas Treatment Network in League City because the latter was closer to home. At the end of her second stay in Devereux, no one in the family thought Andrea was ready to get out, but the ten-day limit from the insurance company meant it was time to go. It hardly seems like a better recipe for disaster could exist.

Rusty Yates was giving media interviews almost immediately after the tragedy. He eulogized his children at their funeral, talking about the joyous moments in their lives. If you missed the funeral, you can still watch it. It's on the Web site he created,, which offers photos and film clips from their home movies, complete with audio. You can hear the music at the funeral and see scenes of Rusty crying.

He still lives in the same house where his children were killed.

Dora Yates described her daughter-in-law as "a very gentle person and a very loving person. She is a very creative person with the children. I always said she and Rusty were very lucky to have found each other."

Were they really?

Andrea Yates told police Sergeant Eric Mehl that she drowned her children not because she was mad at them, but because she had realized she had not been a good mother and she was going to be punished. "They weren't developing correctly."

She filled a bathtub with water about three inches from the top and put in three-year-old Paul, facedown. He struggled, died and she pulled him from the water and took him to the master bedroom, where she laid him on the bed. She repeated the scene with two-year-old Luke and five-year-old John.

Mary was in the bathroom through all of this, sitting in a baby seat as her brothers were killed in front of her. She was crying. Andrea put her in the water, drowned her and left her there, calling for Noah.

Walking in, Noah asked, "What happened to Mary?" His mother put him in the tub, alongside the body of his dead sister. Noah struggled the most, in fact he briefly got away. Back in the water, he continued the fight, breaking the surface of the water to gasp for air twice. Andrea then took Mary out and put her on the bed, curving John's left arm around his baby sister's body. Noah was left behind in the undrained tub.

Andrea believed her children "were doomed to perish in the fires of hell," according to psychiatrist Dr. Melissa Ferguson. Andrea told Ferguson she was a bad mother and had not raised her children to be righteous. By drowning them, she thought she could save them from hell, Ferguson testified.

Ferguson, psychiatric services director at the county jail, interviewed Andrea the day after her arrest, and found her to be one of the "sickest" patients she had ever treated for major depression with psychosis. Andrea believed she was marked by Satan or that she was Satan himself, Ferguson said.

A common theme in science fiction and an increasingly contemplated possibility in science is that of parallel universes -- universes separated from us not by light-years of distance and travel, but by dimensions.

These universes are said to exist quietly right alongside our own and to be just like ours, with little twists and variations.

Faced with the awful reality of the Yates case, it's hard to resist the comforts of indulging in alternate-universe scenarios instead of the one being played out in Judge Belinda Hill's 230th District Court.

In one alternate universe, Noah is able to get away from his mother as he runs in wild terror down the hall, flings open the front door and shouts for help. He is the sole surviving child, and he goes on to do great things in his life.

In another alternate universe, Rusty Yates realizes that his wife, who has tried to kill herself twice and has repeatedly been treated for psychosis and postpartum depression, is the last person who should be homeschooling. He gets her checked into a better mental health facility and takes a leave from work, devoting himself to his family.

In a third alternate universe, 63-year-old Dora Yates does not get exhausted trying to keep up with five little kids, and she shows up early that morning as usual. The kids eat their cereal and Dora and Rusty put Andrea in the car and take her to a mental health center where she can get the help she needs.

In another alternate universe, Andrea Yates draws the deadly bathwater but somehow, while cradling her baby Mary, with the child smiling up at her, cannot go through with the drownings. She puts Mary down on the floor and calls her husband.

In another alternate universe, the kids run outside, the oldest ones jumping on their bikes, holding tight to the youngest. Mary's head is on John's shoulder. She laughs -- they all laugh and chortle as they watch their baby sister being so smart, clutching John's hair to stay in place, to stay safe. And just as in the movie E.T., as they pedal faster and faster, their bikes begin to levitate and they all rise up, into the sky in a blaze of glory, far away from the adults and the mess of things below.

They get away, they get away clean, they get away clean and free as the wind.


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