HOUSTON – The state of Texas is willing to forgo the death penalty for Andrea Yates if she accepts responsibility for drowning her five children in the family bathtub, a prosecutor disclosed Tuesday as the questioning of prospective jurors got under way.
Yates, 37, confessed to police that on June 20 she drowned her children, ranging in age from 6 months to 7 years, but she has pleaded innocent by reason of insanity. Her attorneys say she suffers from a severe form of postpartum depression.
Jury selection is expected to take four to five weeks. Testimony is not expected to begin until mid-February.
The district attorney's office is seeking the death penalty. But in court on Tuesday, prosecutor Joe Owmby disclosed that the district attorney's office was willing to offer a life sentence "if Yates was willing to accept responsibility for her criminal acts."
Neither side commented on Owmby's offer; state District Judge Belinda Hill has imposed a gag order.
Meanwhile, the first two potential jurors to undergo individual scrutiny by attorneys in the capital murder case were stricken from the jury pool.
The two, a man and woman, were questioned separately for about an hour by lawyers for Yates and Harris County prosecutors and each was eliminated — one by the defense and one by the prosecution.
Each side arbitrarily can dismiss up to 15 potential jurors. A panel of 60 jury prospects was assembled Monday before Hill, who said she didn't expect a jury to be seated in the case for four to five weeks. Testimony is not expected to begin until mid-February.
Eight potential jurors are scheduled for questioning each day.
Both sides also agreed Tuesday to dismiss three other potential jurors.
Of those questioned early in the day, one man, the father of three, said he thought he could listen to testimony without prejudice.
"The notion that a mother would kill her children is an emotional one," said the man, whose full name was not disclosed. "I just wanted to understand what made it transpire, because otherwise it's incomprehensible."
Before juror interviews began, Hill allowed Yates' lawyer, George Parnham, to read into the court record a statement contending the drownings of the five children last June were caused by "a mentally diseased and ill woman."
"Andrea Yates was suffering from severe psychotic depression," Parnham said. "But for the psychosis, she would never have considered, much less acted upon, any thought to take the lives of the children she bore into this world and dearly loved as their mother."
Yates, who has pleaded innocent by reason of insanity, could be condemned if jurors decide she was sane when she drowned her children.
All 60 people in the jury pool have said they are aware of Yates, who is charged with two counts of capital murder for drowning sons Noah, 7, and John, 5; and for drowning daughter Mary, 6 months. In Texas, those convicted of a multiple murder or killing an infant are eligible for the death penalty.
Charges are pending for the drownings of the other two Yates children, Paul, 3, and Luke 2.
Yates' attorneys say she suffers from a severe form of postpartum depression. If found innocent, they say she will be placed in a mental hospital to get help.