Verdict Sparks Passionate Reactions

For Dianne Clements, Andrea Yates' capital murder trial wasn't about a mother's psychosis triggered by the most severe of postpartum depression. It was about five dead children.

For Deborah Bell, it was about a psychotic woman in desperate need of treatment, not a criminal who heartlessly drowned her children.

Both closely watched Yates' trial, and their passions erupted at the news Tuesday that 12 jurors convicted Yates of capital murder after less than four hours of deliberations.

Clements, head of the Texas pro-death penalty group Justice For All, praised prosecutors for emphasizing the children's deaths — from repeatedly showing home videos of the Yates family to the clothing they wore when they died.

"They were the only two voices who spoke for the children, and they were obviously heard loud and clear," Clements said. "Now we have 12 jurors to be equally proud of."

But Bell, president of the Texas chapter of the National Organization for Women, said she was stunned at the conviction in light of so much evidence of mental illness.

She said Yates was "was persecuted, not prosecuted," and the verdict unveiled a need for public education, understanding and compassion about mental illness.

Yates, 37, was convicted of two counts of capital murder in the deaths of 6-month-old Mary, 7-year-old Noah and 5-year-old John. She drowned them, along with Paul, 3, and Luke, 2, in the bathtub of her southeast Houston home June 20, shortly after her husband and the children's father, Russell, went to work.

In a state where defendants are presumed sane, Yates' attorneys worked hard to convince jurors Yates was innocent by reason of insanity. They presented doctors and witnesses who testified Yates was psychotic and killed her children to protect them from Satan.

But the speedy announcement of the verdict likely shows jurors saw no need for extensive deliberations after an initial poll revealed at least majority agreement of Yates' guilt, said Neil McCabe, a criminal law professor at the South Texas College of Law.

"Look at her own statements," McCabe said. "She knew what she was doing was wrong was pretty bad. Her calling 911 in the first place and asking that police be sent out to her home was pretty bad for her."

Prominent Houston defense attorney and former Harris County prosecutor Rusty Hardin said the speed of the decision surprised him, but the verdict did not.

"I think the very methodical, calm way she went about killing five children, and the way she had plenty of time to think about it, and the way she talked about it and acted afterward, I think the jury really rested on that," Hardin said.

But Dr. Shari Lusskin, a reproductive psychiatrist at New York University Medical Center and a professor at the institution's medical school, said the verdict was the most recent of many tragedies for Yates and her family.

"She clearly had a long-standing, serious mental illness," Lusskin said. "The description of her actions is consistent with the postpartum psychosis. Convicting her of murder like this unfortunately does a disservice to people who are victims of mental illness."

The American Civil Liberties Union said the "unbelievable and unspeakable tragedy" of the children's deaths "could be made even more horrific" if Yates is given a death sentence.

"All of the testimony in this case demonstrates that Andrea Yates is a tragically mentally ill person who should not be facing the death penalty," ACLU director Diann Rust-Tierney said.

Clements was among observers who said they would return to the courthouse Thursday when jurors start hearing evidence in the punishment phase of Yates' case. Prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty.

While Clements praised the verdict, she said no one is a winner. "There's no such thing as a good guilty verdict because what it means is an innocent person, or in this case persons, died," she said.