Regardless of Verdict, Andrea Yates Will Likely Spend the Rest of Her Life as Prisoner

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Whether she's convicted of murder in the bathtub drownings of her young children or acquitted by reason of insanity, Andrea Yates will likely spend the rest of her life as a prisoner.

If jurors agree with her plea of innocent by reason of insanity, Yates would be sent to a state-run, maximum-security mental hospital that would in no way resemble a country club.

Patients at Vernon State Mental Hospital in north Texas, where Yates would be initially sent, spend their days under orders, allotted only a small amount of daily free time, just like inmates in the state prison where Yates would spend the rest of her life if convicted.

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The hospital campus is encircled on all sides by a 17-foot-high fence dotted with guard towers.

"I would say that anyone who thinks it too cozy, go up there and spend two nights," said David Haynes, attorney for Dena Schlosser, who was acquitted by reason of insanity in the death of her infant daughter and has been at Vernon since spring.

"They are in there ... and they can't come out," he said.

A jury in Houston was expected to begin deliberations Monday in Yates' second murder trial for drowning her children in the family bathtub in 2001. She has twice pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. She was convicted of murder in 2002 but an appeals court overturned that conviction because erroneous testimony may have influenced the jury.

Yates' attorneys say she suffered from severe postpartum psychosis when she killed 7-year-old Noah, 5-year-old John, 3-year-old-Paul, 2-year-old Luke and 6-month-old Mary. They say she meets Texas' definition of insanity: that a severe mental illness prevents someone who is committing a crime from knowing it is wrong.

The perception that people who plead insane somehow beat the system is dead wrong, said Jerry McLain, spokesman for the Vernon hospital.

"Just because a person is found not guilty by reason of insanity ... doesn't really mean that they get off scot-free," McLain said. "The reason for that is because of the dangerousness issue."

An insanity plea admits that the defendant actually has committed a crime — and is consequently a threat to society. Patients undergo rigorous rehabilitation and evaluation processes to determine when — if ever — they can be transferred to a lighter security hospital or possibly be released.

"There's no simple measure of continuing dangerousness," said Dr. Paul Appelbaum, chairman of the council on psychiatry and law for the American Psychiatric Association.

"Among the things that would be taken into account would be the state of mind associated with the previous violence, whether those symptoms are still present," he said.

The evaluations are so complicated and comprehensive that they're almost guaranteed to drag on, officials said.

"It literally can end up being years and years ... maybe their entire life before they would be eligible to be discharged," McLain said.

That period often exceeds the prison sentence a defendant would have gotten if simply found guilty, said Beth Mitchell, a lawyer with Advocacy Inc. in Austin. The nonprofit group works to ensure the rights of people with disabilities and mental illnesses.

She said that while doctors may determine that a patient has been rehabilitated enough to at least warrant outpatient treatment, judicial officials who oversee patient reviews may still refuse to authorize a release.

"Especially if it's more heinous crimes, the judge just sees that as they've committed the crime, and it doesn't matter if they do or don't meet commitment criteria," she said.

And being placed in a facility with less stringent security is still comparable to being imprisoned, Mitchell said.

Even if a facility doesn't have a high fence or guards in towers, "you're still confined. The doors are still locked," Mitchell said. "You still have somebody watching your every move and documenting your every move. ... Even though you could refuse some of the classes, your refusal oftentimes will inhibit your ability to possibly have a recommendation to be released."

For a person without mental illness to spend time in such a facility, Mitchell said, "you'd go crazy."