HOUSTON – State District Judge Belinda Hill issued a gag order Tuesday in the case of a mother accused of drowning her five children, saying the court fears media attention may keep it from securing a fair and impartial jury pool.
Andrea Yates, 36, was charged with one count of capital murder last week. Police say she confessed to drowning her children -- Noah, 7; John, 5; Paul, 3; Luke, 2; and Mary, 6-months -- in her suburban Houston home's bathtub on June 20.
The order prohibits any attorneys, police officers or witnesses in the case from talking about it.
"This order is not being entered at the request of either side," Hill said as she signed off on the order Tuesday afternoon, explaining that the idea first came up when Yates' court appointed attorney, Bob Scott, filed a motion for a gag order last week.
A private defense attorney, George Parnham, has since taken over Yates' case. The defense objected to the gag order.
"The court has become very concerned about a potential jury pool being tainted," Hill said.
David Donaldson, an Austin attorney and director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said gag orders are not unusual in high profile cases.
He said he wasn't sure if such an order could forbid witnesses or family members questioned by investigators from speaking to the media or others. Prosecutors, defense attorneys and investigators would be covered.
"Outside of that I'm not sure witnesses who have not appeared before the court are under the court's control," he said.
Donaldson said gag orders are issued by courts across the nation.
"There's no question there is a restriction on attorneys and parties rights to speak on these cases but at the same time courts have made judgments that protection of the judicial process is important enough that (free speech) should be restricted," he said.
Earlier this week, Parnham said he was considering an insanity defense based on Andrea Yates medical records and discussions he has had with those treating her. Yates' husband, Russell, said his wife suffered from postpartum depression.
On Tuesday, Parnham said the gag order prohibited him, "from commenting about any aspect of the case," including details of the children's funeral scheduled for Wednesday morning.
District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal, who was reached before the gag order officially took effect, said his staff is in the process of putting together a report which will help him to determine what charges, if any, Andrea Yates should be indicted on and whether or not to seek the death penalty. Rosenthal said those determinations should be made within three weeks.
Rosenthal said he has received many e-mails about the case.
"It's running almost exactly 50/50 of people who want us to be lenient and those who want us to pursue the death penalty," he said.
However, Rosenthal said decisions in the case will come down to the evidence. He said he has an idea of which way the evidence is pointing, but wouldn't elaborate.
"Emotions run high on things like this," he said. "People tend to comment on what they see in cases like this whether the information is correct or not."
Hill said the gag order will help ensure the case doesn't have to be moved and help expedite the justice process.
"Judge Hill wants to try this case very quickly, maybe by December," Rosenthal said.