Published January 13, 2015
Andrea Yates' husband, Russell, testified in her murder trial Wednesday, as defense attorneys tried to show jurors Yates loved her children but was so severely mentally ill that she drowned them in a bathtub.
"She's wonderful," Russell Yates testified through teary eyes. "She was so involved with the children. She loved them and read to them."
Andrea Yates is accused of drowning their five children June 20. She is on trial on two counts of capital murder in the deaths of three of them.
To help hammer their point home to the jury, the defense played a videotape of the Yates children watching butterflies and greeting their mother after the birth of her fifth child. Yates' attorney, George Parnham, also admitted into evidence a coupon book for "big squeezy hugs" Yates gave last year to her second child, John.
Russell Yates testified the couple decided to have a fifth child after his wife's initial bout with severe postpartum depression because he thought she was cured. He blamed the deaths on the illness.
He also contradicted the testimony of a psychiatrist that had previously treated his wife, saying she ordered that Andrea Yates be taken off her anti-psychotic medication in 1999 and discouraged the couple, but didn't forbid them from having more children.
Russell Yates smiled at his wife as he entered the courtroom to testify. Andrea Yates, 37, has confessed to drowning the couple's five children but has pleaded innocent by reason of insanity. She could face the death penalty if convicted.
The husband, who sometimes rocked nervously on the witness stand, described what he thought were his wife's nervous habits, such as picking at her hair and constantly carrying around their newest baby at the time.
"We didn't see her as a danger," Yates said of the behavior, which occurred between Andrea Yates' two suicide attempts in 1999, following the birth of Luke, their fourth child.
He laughed nervously as he described how Luke likely was conceived on a trip to purchase a bus from a traveling preacher he befriended while attending Auburn University.
Early in his testimony, Yates read a portion of the newsletter the traveling preacher sent the couple. The quoted portion spoke of the mother who was driven crazy by her children.
"On the day of judgment, she will have no plea," Russell Yates read. "On the day of judgment, now what becomes of the children of such a Jezebel."
The family lived in the bus, which had been converted into a mobile home by the traveling preacher, for a period in the late 1990s until they moved into a house in far southeast Houston.
Russell Yates told jurors he didn't realize his wife was depressed until after Luke's birth when she called him home from work. He said he found her shaking in the bus, parked at a campsite.
"She looked like she had a nervous breakdown," he said.
To calm her nerves, Russell Yates said he took his wife and the couple's four sons for a walk along the water in coastal Galveston.
"It did not seem to help much," Yates said.
The next day, Andrea Yates tried to kill herself by overdosing on her father's sleeping pills, her husband said. She was treated and released but three weeks later Russell Yates found her holding a knife to her throat.
Russell Yates said instead of seeking medical treatment, he decided to wait until Andrea's appointment the next day with psychiatrist Eileen Starbranch.
Parnham asked why Russell Yates didn't call the psychiatrist right away.
"In hindsight, I guess I should have," Yates testified. "We thought we could keep an eye on her."
Starbranch treated Andrea Yates for five months following the second suicide attempt. The doctor testified they ignored her warnings that having a fifth child could re-ignite Andrea Yates' acute mental illness.
"Apparently patient and husband plan to have as many babies as nature will allow!" the psychiatrist wrote on a medical chart on Aug. 18, 1999. "This will surely guarantee future psychotic depression."
Russell Yates countered that Starbranch simply discouraged the couple from having more children. He also said Starbranch took Andrea Yates off of antipsychotic medication, a contention the doctor denied.
The husband, who works at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, said his wife then began home schooling their children.
She became pregnant with Mary, their fifth child, after she got back to her "old self," following the family's move into their southeast Houston home, he said. After Mary's birth, the depression returned, he said.
Shortly after the killings in that home, Andrea Yates told police she methodically drowned children Noah, 7; John, 5; Paul, 3; Luke, 2; and 6-month-old Mary.
To prove insanity, defense lawyers must show the Houston woman suffered from a severe mental disease and didn't know the difference between right and wrong at the time of the drownings.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.