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Can a Jury Understand a Mother That Kills?

Aired June 25, 2001 - 12:30   ET



GEORGE PARNHAM, ATTORNEY FOR ANDREA YATES: Obviously, I've never had a situation where an individual has been accused of the murder of five children. It's of vital importance to focus in on issues throughout the course of preparation of this case and the case itself that speak to mental health in general.


ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: Was Andrea Yates insane when she killed her five children? And can a jury or anyone ever understand a mother that kills?

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF, with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren.

COSSACK: Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF.

Over the weekend, more gruesome details of how Andrea Yates allegedly drowned her five children in the family bathtub were revealed. As the public debated the enormity of the crime, the Texas mother remained in jail and was visited by her attorney and her husband. Yet to be decided: Will she face the death penalty if convicted? And will she plead insanity?

Joining us today from Houston: Andrea Yates' attorney, George Parnham -- and also from Houston, former Texas state prosecutor Doug O'Brien -- from New York, forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner -- here in Washington, Adam Kotter (ph), Jason Volack (ph) and Jeanna Chiles (ph) -- and in the back, Anne Shillabeer (ph), Miguel Suazo (ph) and Alexandria Sanchez (ph).

I want to go right to you, George. You've had now the opportunity to spend time with your client. Can you describe for us her mental state or condition?

PARNHAM: Sure, Roger.

She is suffering at this moment from the depths of an acute psychosis. She is being treated mentally by the staff psychiatrists, and I am certain receiving antipsychotic medication. She is on a 24- hour acute suicide watch. There is a qualified mental health person with her 24 hours a day. I applaud the mental health services available in the Harris County jail facility for standing by and treating her as they are treating her.

COSSACK: George, it seems, I would conclude, that she knew what she did because she was able to call the police and report the incident. Does she have an appreciation for what she has done?

PARNHAM: Roger, it's too early, quite frankly, for me to make such an assessment. I will say that the attorney-client conferences that I have had -- without divulging the content of those conferences -- have been basically one of observation as opposed to any dialogue.

And as a consequence, it's just absolutely impossible to gain some semblance of understanding about what is going on in her mind. I am content, however, in letting you know that, at some time in the future, I am certain these medications will kick in. And she will, in all probability, regain a level of competency that will permit me to properly and effectively talk with her and prepare in our defense.

COSSACK: George, the implication from what you just said is -- is that, at least at this time, she is not able to communicate with you effectively, in the sense of -- for you to prepare a defense. Is that something that you are considering in terms of going to the court and saying: "You know, at this time, Your Honor -- or however you put it in Texas -- my client is not competent to stand trial"?

PARNHAM: That is always a consideration. I intend, in the very near future, to have some additional mental health experts interview her, visit with the doctors and come to a conclusion relative to the issue of competency.

COSSACK: Is she able to communicate with you? Can you describe, for our viewers, her state? Is she in a state where she -- is she able to respond to you at all? And I understand attorney-client, George, so do our viewers, so I'm not asking you to tell us what you might have said.

PARNHAM: It's very difficult to describe. Any person that has seen an individual in an acute psychotic state -- particularly under antidepressant medication, a medication she was not on at the time these killings took place -- will understand that, basically, it's a zombie state. And whether or not she is able to comprehend the nature and circumstances of the events that put her into the jail, and whether or not she is able to comprehend what I am talking to her about remains to be seen.

COSSACK: George, it's been reported that she has had bouts of depression before -- after the birth of her fourth child as well as her fifth child -- and that in the past, she had tried to kill herself. Have you spoken to her husband about this? And what insight have you gained?

PARNHAM: Roger, she has suffered in the past from problems that relate to depression. There is also, obviously, the reported situation of at least one prior suicidal attempt by her. I am certain that she has communicated with her husband. I have not spoken directly to Rusty about those incidents. As you can well imagine, his hands are absolutely full with the necessities of taking care of the burial details. And I don't want to burden him with that. The information that I am receiving relates to other members of the family sharing these matters with me, material printed in the press, material that has been afforded the press by members of law enforcement. And, you know, she's had her prior problems.

COSSACK: George, it's been reported that she committed this act because she had a delusion regarding the welfare of the children: that somehow she believed that there was something wrong with the children; there was something terribly wrong with the children. And perhaps what she was doing, in her mind -- at least, what it's been reported is, that she was saving them from something worse. Can you comment on that?

PARNHAM: You know, based upon what I have been able to obtain in general medical information relative to the issues of postpartum depression and the extent to which that postpartum depression can, in effect, become a psychosis, it is evident that delusions, hallucinations can well be a factor that takes place when a person is in such an acute psychotic state.

She -- you know, this is not a simple matter of the baby blues. It's my understanding that 70 percent of women who give birth experience some type of depression after childbirth. We're talking about that at the onset. But we're talking about various levels of psychosis, the last of which Andrea fell into and is still there.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break.

What is postpartum depression? And can it cause a woman to kill her children?

Stay with us.


Attorneys for Slobodan Milosevic have filed a challenge to the extradition decree that took effect on Sunday, asserting that it is unconstitutional. The U.N. War Crimes Tribunal is seeking the extradition of the ex-president for alleged war crimes committed in Kosovo.



COSSACK: Welcome back. Andrea Yates has allegedly killed her five children because of postpartum depression. But was it postpartum depression or was it some other form of psychosis or was it any kinds of disease. To help us discuss that is Dr. Michael Welner.

Dr. Welner, we've heard the phrase earlier of postpartum depression, and George has said that look, this is a little different, what my client had, than the baby blues, which many woman have. What is postpartum depression, and is this perhaps what the culprit is or is there something stronger or greater we should be worried about?

DR. MICHAEL WELNER, FORENSIC PSYCHIATRIST: Well, there are two ways of looking at it. On the one hand, it's helpful to the defense; on the other hand, the attorney might be cautious about how much he commits to the idea of postpartum depression for a number of reason.

Postpartum depression afflicts anywhere 10 to 22 percent of women in the postpartum period, and as defense attorney Parnham pointed out, that's to be distinguished from postpartum blues, which afflicts perhaps as many as 80 percent of women after giving birth.

But the key thing here is that postpartum psychosis occurs probably about once every 500 births; a much smaller percentage and perhaps more importantly to this case, postpartum psychosis is typically associated as occurring, beginning and ending within days of giving birth.

So, while this may well be postpartum depression, there are unusual qualities that relate to the depression that, again, we might want to be careful before putting it under a specific label that might suggest that she's a bit more rational by virtue of statistics than we might otherwise expect, given our understanding of when postpartum depression and psychosis are associated.

COSSACK: All right, let's back up for me at least for a second. First of all, postpartum psychosis is, I think, a much more severe form of what we are talking about. In postpartum psychosis, is that the time when a woman, a mother, would act out in a way or could act out in a way we have seen Andrea Yates act out?

WELNER: It's important for everyone to realize that postpartum psychosis is regarded as an emergent psychiatric condition because there really seems to be a higher likelihood and higher incidence when postpartum psychosis arises that what psychosis is irrational, and the woman who is experiencing psychosis has such a break with reality that she does not recognize the implications of her bizarre ideas of the children's welfare or her own suicidality.

And there are stories, a number of stories, where women have become uncharacteristically violent and homicidal, and those are the characteristics that are associated with our appreciating postpartum psychosis as an emergent situation. It's the break from reality, not so much the depression.


COSSACK: Let me give you a hypothetical. Would it make -- would this be a symptom of postpartum psychosis: A mother who hears voices or begins to feel that her children -- there is something terribly wrong with her children, perhaps it's her fault, perhaps we don't know whose fault it is, but there's something terribly wrong and the mother must act in a horrible, irrational way perhaps such as killing them to prevent this further wrongs from going on and further harming her children? Is that a psychotic kind of thing that one would find? WELNER: What distinguishes psychosis and delusions is that they are false beliefs and they fixed. A rational woman thinks my children are in some way affected, but you can talk that person out of it. And an irrational person, a psychotic person, a delusional person, despite all reassurance to the contrary, she believes that her children are permanently afflicted or some way damaged enough that she might consider that they are better off being dead.

COSSACK: All right, now, let's get to the question that people like you get asked in courtrooms all the time. The standard in Texas, as it is in most states in this country, is whether or not the defendant knew right from wrong when she committed the acts that she's accused of committing. Under the description that you just gave, would Andrea Yates know right from wrong?

WELNER: Well, I haven't examined her and I don't know the case, but I think that it's important to point out a few things. There are other issues that are associated with the question of right from wrong in infanticide cases. These cases have been associated with the mother being overwhelmed, with the mother being irritable. So, it may not be the diagnosis itself, it may be psychosocial issues that might have influences this crime to happen.

It's important to point out that this devoted father was at work that day. So, he didn't appreciate an acute risk to his children, despite, again, reportedly Mrs. Yates having contemplated this before that day.

So, again, it's important to incorporate a diagnosis as well as psychosocial issues, and without the opportunity to do that, no psychiatrist can come to a definitive conclusion, even if something is delusional or if it is not. It's one thing to have a delusion; it's another to act on it in a homicidal way.

COSSACK: OK, so the question then becomes, when we're talking about right from wrong, is that that notion, that question of whether anyone would appreciate right from wrong in this case, Andrea Yates could not be told unless you had the ability to so do a complete diagnosis on her and test her? Is that correct?

WELNER: Sure, and what a forensic psychiatrist does in a case like this is sits down and gets a sense from her. What about the choices you make? What were you thinking about? What were the alternatives, and what brought you to that point where you made that ultimate choice? And then, a psychiatrist can get a sense of whether she truly appreciated the wrong of her actions.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break. When we come back, we've talked to the defense, we've talked to the doctor; let's talk to the prosecution and find out what they must do in this case and what they think about when they're thinking about the death penalty. Stay with us.


(BEGIN Q&A) Q: Dubravko Rajcevic, who was sentenced to a two-year jail term fir stalking tennis great Martina Hingis, has appealed his convictions on what grounds?

A: The prosecutor, Christopher Calkin, is now dating Hingis. Calkin said the relationship started the weekend after Rajcevic's sentencing.


COSSACK: Welcome back to BURDEN OF PROOF. We've been discussing Andrea Yates. We've talked to her defense lawyer, we've talked to a psychiatrist, and now let's talk to Doug O'Brien, a former prosecutor for the state of Texas. Doug, you, as a prosecutor, would represent the people of the state of Texas. There's been a horrendous, horrible murder in the state of Texas. The prosecutor's job seek the truth and seek justice.

What, as a prosecutor, would you be doing in this case right now and what would be your concerns?

DOUG O'BRIEN, FORMER TEXAS PROSECUTOR: Well, obviously, your concern in a case like this are the true victims of this case, the five children who are dead at this time. A lot of times, the emphasis gets shifted to the defendant, and particularly in this case to the father, but I think the children, obviously, are the true victims in this case.

Obviously, the prosecutor would be doing a lot of the same work that Mr. Parnham is doing as far as continuing the investigation through the police department, gathering information concerning Ms. Yates, concerning her background, concerning her psychiatric evidence and probably at some point in time getting with Mr. Parnham and saying what evidence he has, that he would like to present.

COSSACK: Doug, George Parnham and you can speak with each other. If you were on the other side of the case, and George, you are the defense attorney, what would you want to say to Doug at this particular time in terms of representing your client? How would the process -- for our viewers, show us how the process would begin?

PARNHAM: Sure, I'd immediately make contact with Doug, and let him know that there is some evidence out there that he might want to consider, not only in making the decision as to whether or not to seek the ultimate penalty of death, but also in considering what information he may want to supply to a grand jury and when that grand jury makes a determination on the merits of the accusations.

I have no quarrel with doing that because I think that in a case of this fashion, it is of absolute magnitude importance that as much information that is out there be made available to not only the prosecutor in helping that prosecutor make the decision on the death penalty, but also to, for instance, a grand jury.

COSSACK: Right. Let me just go back to Doug for a second. Doug, would you be feeling any political pressure on this case? Look, a tragic case, five young innocent children are dead. Would you be feeling pressure from the public, from others to go ahead and be perhaps more stringent or be looking stronger toward the death penalty?

O'BRIEN: I don't think the district attorney would necessarily feel pressure from the public. Obviously, this is the type of decision that should be a community-based decision. The insanity defense is a defense, and that's something that has to be proven by the defense, and I think the best way to resolve a case like this would be in a jury setting, to let the jury hear all of the evidence and make the appropriate decision.

COSSACK: And would you have your own psychiatrist appointed in this case on behalf of the state to examine Mrs. Yates?

O'BRIEN: I'm sure the prosecution would certainly want to have some expert witnesses testify, and would certainly want to have the opportunity to examine Ms. Yates and to conduct a thorough examination of her.

COSSACK: All right, George, you're going to want to have your psychiatrist or team of psychiatrists examine Mrs. Yates, also. Is this the kind of material that you would share with the prosecutor. I know normally, prosecutors and defense lawyers don't like to share too much information. But in a case like this, would you want to share your information?

PARNHAM: I would probably go to the prosecutor and suggest to the prosecutor that there will be reports from experts that have examined her, based on the written evidence that is already present, concerning her past mental history. Obviously, the prosecution, in testing the qualification of experts, has an opportunity in the future to obtain information formally relative to the opinion rendered by an expert of the defense and the bases of that opinion.

I think it is absolutely crucial in this case that we sit down and we share opinions and information concerning the mental health status of my client. These reports that have been generated in the past aren't going to change. The medications she's received in the past are not going to change, and that needs to be taken into consideration by the state when it makes the decision as to what it do in this matter.

COSSACK: Doug, the facts here are overwhelming. I mean, here's a woman who obviously had problems, and then had never been in any criminal trouble, and then suddenly, for lack of a better phrase, something snapped. I mean, that's about the only way we can describe this.

As a prosecutor, knowing those kinds of facts, would that make you more amenable to an insanity defense. We both know that insanity defense are very, very hard to convince juries of?

O'BRIEN: Well, I think in every horrible crime, the people think, well, gosh, this person had to be crazy to do something like that. I think that's pretty much a given in any horrible offense that a prosecutor is faced dealing with. However, I think the difficult hurtle is there's no question that she has a serious mental seize disease or defect. The question is, is she legally insane and did she now know right from wrong.

COSSACK: That is the question, and that's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests, thank you for watching. Join us again tomorrow for another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. I'll see you then.



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