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Is Yates Competent Enough to Assist Her Lawyers? Where Will Chandra Levy Investigation Go from Here?

Aired August 8, 2001 - 12:30   ET


ROGER COSSACK, CNN ANCHOR: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: Andrea Yates appeared in court this morning for arraignment on capital murder charges for allegedly killing her children. Is Yates competent enough to assist her lawyers? Plus, today marks the 100th day that Washington intern Chandra Levy has been missing. Where will the investigation go from here?

Hello and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF. I'm in Los Angeles today.

Andrea Yates appeared in a Harris County, Texas courtroom this morning and pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Yates is accused of drowning her five children in June, and is charged with two counts of capital murder. One charge is for the multiple murder of two of her sons, seven-year-old Noah, and John, who was just five. The other charge is for the death of a child under six, her baby daughter Mary, who was six-months-old.

Under Texas law, a person can receive the death penalty if they commit multiple killings, or they kill a child under six years old.

Yates' attorneys say she has a history of mental illness, and that she is unfit to stand trial.

Joining us today from Austin, Texas is forensic psychiatrist William Reid, and in Washington, the former commander of the D.C. homicide squad and criminal defense attorney, Lou Hennessy.

Lou, I want to start right with you. The plea is made on behalf of Miss Yates that she is unable to stand trial. That is, she is in competent to assist her attorney. Tell us what the difference is between a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity plea and not competent to stand trial?

W. LOUIS HENNESSY, FMR. CMDR., D.C. HOMICIDE SQUAD: Well, first of all, it doesn't take much be found competent to stand trial. The government is going to have to be able to show that -- or she's going to have to be able to found to understand the proceedings that are going on, and that's in a position to be able assist her attorneys in preparing a defense in her behalf, whereas if she were entering not a criminally responsible plea or a not guilty by reason insanity, it's a little more involved, and the standard is a little more defense favorable than this particular standard here. COSSACK: Lou, for her to be found not guilty by reason of insanity, basically, she would have to be able to convince a jury she was unable to tell the difference between right and wrong, she just frankly had no ability to distinguish between those two values, isn't that right?

HENNESSY: That's pretty much it in a nutshell. I don't know exactly which tests the state of Texas used generally. Four tests are accepted, not guilty by reason of insanity defense that are out there. That being one of them. If that's the case, it is a much lower standard, much easier standard to address from the defense perspective than the one of her being able to assist or understand the proceedings that are going on today.

COSSACK: All right. Now joining us is Dr. William Reid.

Dr. Reid, as a psychiatrist who often is called in to consult on these kinds of cases, explain to us the difference in what you are looking for, in someone who has first put in a plea saying I am incompetent to stand trial. That is, I just cannot get through, my mental state is such that I can't get through these proceeding. And then the next step is, assuming that that person found competent, my plea is not guilty by reason of insanity. What's the difference between the two? What do you do to determine the difference?

DR. WILLIAM REID, FORENSIC PSYCHIATRIST: Very good question, Roger. First of all, competence to stand trial has to do with someone's condition at the time of the trial. The Constitution says you must be present at your trial, in most situations like this, and if you are not mentally present, that's not being present. In terms of being responsible for what you did, that refers to things a long time ago when the alleged crime took place. In general, we don't hold small children responsible for things they; we don't call those criminal acts. Similarly, people who are severely mentally ill at the time of the act, and by virtue of that mental illness don't understand the differences between right and wrong, and perhaps other things, shouldn't be, constitutionally speaking -- I'm not a lawyer, but a psychiatrist -- shouldn't be responsible to the same extent a criminal is.

I, of course, people like me, don't make those determinations. Judges and juries make the determination, but we try to help.

COSSACK: Dr. Reid, what you do is gather facts by interviewing the patient, and then give your conclusion or your opinion as to these ultimate questions, the ability of competency and then facts having to do with not guilty by reason of insanity. Tell us how you would conducting an examination as to whether or not someone is competent to stand trial?

REID: Sure. First of all, a person such as myself is contacted by an attorney or by a court; sometimes the prosecution, sometimes the defense. We review information about the person's past history, but particularly their current situation, their current functioning. One always wants to see the individual, interview him or her usually for some time, and then try to answer the questions that Lou was referring to: Does the person know what they are being accused of? Who is accusing them? The general trial procedure? What may happen at the trial? That sort of thing. A report is often written, and sometimes we testify in court about our recommendation.

COSSACK: Dr. Reid, Miss Yates' lawyer has described her as being in catatonic state? What does that mean to you in terms of your examination?

REID: There's several kinds of catatonic. I suspect the state that the lawyers are referring to is not responding very much or at all to her surroundings. People who are catatonic in that way often look like they are sort of frozen and move in sort of a waxy way. The classic example is someone who doesn't move at all.

COSSACK: Her mother, on the other hand, who has been visiting with Mrs. Yates, indicating this is becoming more painful for Mrs. Yates, because she's beginning to understand what she has done. Does that make sense?

HENNESSY: This is not unusual in situations such as this, although I have not seen Miss Yates and I have not followed if case closely, the fact is people who do such things often don't realize the consequences or realize the depth of what they've done until some later time, maybe minutes, hours, but sometimes months and years later, and sometimes only with psychiatric care.

COSSACK: Doctor, is it possible for someone like Mrs. Yates to have been legally insane at the moment that she did these activities, and then as time goes by, become less legally insane, so that today, she would he not meet the criteria, but at the time she did the act, she would meet the criteria?

REID: That's very possible. And that's one of the things that one looks for. Very often people receive treatment between the time of the act and the time of the trial, or things simply get better for one reason or another. So it's not at all unusual for someone to meet the criteria for not being guilty by reason of insanity when the act was committed, but fairly together at the time of trial.

COSSACK: All right, Dr. William Reid, thank you for joining us today from Austin.

Up next on the docket: Chandra Levy has been missing for 100 days. But how has her disappearance impacted the search for other missing people? Stay with us.



The Atlanta City Council is attempting to buy the property surrounding the Gold Club, which was seized by the federal government last week. The city council wants to redevelop the property and turn it into a park. The club was seized last week after owner Steve Kaplan agreed to a plea deal. (END LEGAL BRIEF)



CHIEF CHARLES RAMSEY, D.C. METROPOLITAN POLICE: As far as her missing and on her own is a possibility that I can't give any real weight to, because people have been known to disappear for two or three years and then resurface. We just don't know. There is also the possibility that she met with foul play, but what we need to do is find something, some evidence, some statement, something, that will lead us down that path, and right now, we have not found that, so we are leaving our investigation and our options as broad as possible, so we don't waste investigative time going down a path that turns out to be the inappropriate path.


COSSACK: It's been 100 days since former intern Chandra Levy was last spotted at her Washington D.C. health club. While a major police investigation has been underway, authorities have had little to no luck in gathering clues about her whereabouts. But the Chandra Levy case has brought the issue of missing people to the forefront of the news this summer.

Joining us today in Washington is Ben Ermini of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and in New York, Frank Barnaba of the Paul and Lisa Program.

Ben, let's first talk to you. What is the national center?

BEN ERMINI, FMR. CAPTAIN OF YONKERS, N.Y. POLICE DEPT.: The National Center is a private nonprofit organization that was established back in 1984, as a result of congressional legislation. And we basically are a national clearing house for missing and exploited children. We provide technical assistance and training to law-enforcement agencies, technical assistance to parents of missing families of missing children.

COSSACK: Has the disappearance, the vanishing, if you will, of Chandra Levy had any impact on the finding of other missing children in this country, just by the very nature of the publicity of the Chandra Levy case?

ERMINI: I think it has. I think it has brought tissue to the forefront. Talking about Levy case has brought up the issue of missing children. Our staff has done a number of interviews for the media, and as a result, we've been able to get more and more photographs and posters of missing children to be held nationally.

COSSACK: Frank, you work with Paul and Lisa Foundation. Tell us about that foundation and what your group does?

FRANK BARNABA, FOUNDED PAUL AND LISA FOUNDATION: Yes, we started in 1980, and the death of young lady that got involved in actually child prostitution in Connecticut, and we've grown dramatically since then, and we do lost work with the center, a very fine outfit. We go out on the streets, we work with runaway kids, we work with families that call us, usually referrals to us, that children are missing, and presumed in prostitution. So much of our work, or most of our work, was done with young ladies that end up in prostitution.

COSSACK: Ben, what kind of success rate do you have in terms of finding the young people who are missing?

ERMINI: Well, first you have to realize, we have no investigational authority. We don't send our staff out into the streets looking for missing children, but we do provide assistance for the law enforcement agencies that have been investigating these cases. And since 1990, January 1st of 1990, right through last quarter, which would be June 30th of this year, we have about a 96 -- 93.6 resolution rate for the number ofcases that we in-take, 93.6 percent of them have been resolved.

COSSACK: And when you say resolved, does that mean that people are found, are they found alive, what exactly does that mean.

ERMINI: Basically, what it means, is that the case has been resolved. In some cases, the child has been located and located deceased.

COSSACK: Frank, in your group, you actually go out on the street and assist the police in looking for children, isn't that right?

BARNABA: Yes, we do, Roger. We do an enormity of work with vice squad here in New York, which we've been doing since 1981, and I can't say enough about their assistance. We look for kids usually in what they call the tracks. That's areas where prostitution is most active.

COSSACK: Frank, what happens to a lot of these children, a lot of young women, we think of them as abducted. But oftentimes, they voluntarily go away with someone, then perhaps find themselves in a position where they can't get back.

BARNABA: That's absolutely true. Many youngsters, kids will runaway on a lark, or they will -- one case we just had recently, where a child did not get on the bus she was supposed to, walked down to Times Square, and it just didn't take very long, about 15, 20 minutes to get recruited. One of the things...

COSSACK: As a matter of fact, I think that was a case that we featured on BURDEN OF PROOf, Crystal Horax (ph).

BARNABA: That's right, Crystal Horax case, and by the way, you guys a terrific job on that, and especially opening the door to this problem. Crystal...

COSSACK: Would you just go into just a few minutes on that case, becasue what we knew about Crystal was that she had called her mother, that she was just taking a walk from going to the train station to bus station, and suddenly disappeared. BARNABA: That's basically what happened. She took a walk. This is what she told me. After she took a walk, she ended up on Times Square, and she was approached by this fellow, and he came on her strongly, great guy, terrific fellow, and I guesss she just, like many of these kids do, went with him, and then she found herself in a life of prostitution very quickly and a life of horror, and if it wasn't that she really made a phone call, even though she wasn't on the other end, we identified her number, we would never have been able to zero in on what part of the city she was in.

COSSACK: In terms of your recovery rate and your success rate, tell us how successful your group has been?

BARNABA: Well, what we do a bit different, too, also. Our recovery rate on young women that are already working on the street is really remarkably good, and I wish we were funded a little better and had a little more money, because I think that we could absolutely do a remarkable job. Our -- working with the women that we have been working with, our recovery rate is 70 percent. We also have a court program in Hartford, Connecticut, and statistics there are very good, 80 percent, getting young women out of prostitution.

COSSACK: Ben, your group divides missing people into four different groups -- runaways, family abduction, lost or non-family abduction. Why do you do it into different groups?

ERMINI: Basically, there was a study was done in 1990, published in 1990, a national incidence study, and those are the categories they used in the study. They broke up the research project into those different classifications, and so we're following with that so that we can do additional research. There's a new study coming out, and it's also for our purposes in classifying the types, the circumstances of the case.

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

According to the FBI's National Crime Information Center, there are currently more than 98,000 active missing person files in the United States. So how many of the cases are actually the focus of an ongoing police investigation? And is this a national epidemic?

Don't go away.


COSSACK: According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, ultimately, 99 percent of missing people are eventually accounted for. Either they return on their own, or are found. So what about the remaining 1 percent? Lou, let's talk about Chandra Levy former head of CD police, homicide department, something would you have been involved in.

When you have this kind of activity where the tremendous amount of publicity, does it help you with other cases in termination of searching for other missing people? HENNESSY: It can help and it can hurt. It helps you in that it brings the problem into the public arena. It makes people aware of the fact that this is an issue, and that we are actively searching for people. And also it hurts in that Chandra Levy's case gotten, dominated the news market here in Washington D.C., all over the country. And other people whose children are missing are a little resentful of the fact that Chandra Levy is getting all this attention, and, apparently, all this responsiveness from the police department, when they don't believe necessarily that their children's cases are being handled with as much enthusiasm.

COSSACK: Lou, let's be honest, the kind of activity and involvement that the D.C. police department has shown in the Chandra Levy case is not -- could never be typical of the kind of involvement they would involve themselves in with normal missing person, isn't that right?

HENNESSY: I think that's probably pretty fair statement. I don't know of murder cases where we have had the type of response that we've seen from the police department; in this case, particularly the visible response, interaction with the news media on a case. Even dating back to the 1980s when Reagan was shot, I don't remember that type of information, total interaction with the news media like we've seen in this case.

COSSACK: Frank, let's talk a little bit about another missing person that you're involved with, the search for Dawn Higdon. Tell us about Dawn.

BARNABA: Well, Dawn's sister first approached me some years back, Michelle Higdon, and in desperation looking for Dawn, stated she knew -- I think Dawn had run when she was 16, and they knew that she was working in New York City probably for a pimp, and we immediately started looking for her. It's been an interesting case. We did meet up with a group of young women in the stable that were working with Dawn, but for some reason, he got her out of New York here and started a trek. There's an awful lot of trafficking. She was in L.A. at one point. She was in Vancouver for quite sometime. And then just recently, we were working with the Ottawa Police, in Ottawa canada, and some leads surfaced there, which unfortunately turned out not to be so.

But we constantly speak with the women on the street, we get to know who the pimps are who have these people. That's probably the most valuable thing. And we can somehow track them across the country, and we have very, very good support from police departments, both here and in Canada. So Dawn is very, very special to us. The family loves her very much, and they want her back.

COSSACK: You know, what is there that makes you believe that she couldn't come back if she wanted to or she doesn't want to come back?

BARNABA: Well, there's the possibility. I've had them both ways, That's a good question, Roger. A lot of the times young people feel that their family don't want to see them again, that they don't care for them. In this case, this young lady was abused as a child. She may feel that she shamed everyone. She may feel threatened, that she can't come back, that the pimp has such ahold on her that he might kill her. She might have one, two, three children, which is not unusual for these young people, and frightened if she comes back she can't take the kids because the pimps pimp has it, all kinds.

And as Ben mentioned before, unfortunately, many of these young people end up deceased, and that's one thing we don't ever know once in a great while we find that out.

COSSACK: Ben, have the laws changed, in terms of making it more easier or easier for your groups to go ahead and search for these people, and be successful, that is making the police more responsive, or a quicker response to missing children's reports?

ERMINI: Yes, back in 1990, there was federal legislation passed that requires that law enforcement must take a report of a missing child under age of 18 years of age. Previous to that, law enforcement agencies had policy they tell a parent come back in 24, 48 hours, if the child was still missing, they take the report. The National Missing Child Assistance Act that was passed in 1990 prohibits that. The law enforcement agency must immediately take report of a case of a child under 18 years of age, and they must immediately enter it into the NCIC system. That's had tremendous impact on our ability to assist in locating missing children.

COSSACK: And what is the NCIC system?

ERMINI: NCIC system is the National Crime Information Center that's operated by the FBI, and within that system, there's a missing person's file, where the cases of missing people are entered. And in that particular file, there's a juvenile section, an endangered, and an involuntary section. I believe also a catastrophic section, where law enforcement agencies will enter the information about a missing person into the system.

COSSACK: And do you have your own database with which you go ahead and search for children, that you are able to use.

ERMINI: We have the database that currently has approximately 5,600 active cases now nationally of children that have been reported missing. About 3,300 of those active cases are cases where a child has been missing for at least five years. About 4,000 of the cases in the database, the child has been missing longer than one year.

COSSACK: All right. I'm afraid that's all the time we have today. Thanks to our guests, and thank you for watching.

Today on "TALKBACK LIVE": a look at the Andrea Yates case: Is postpartum psychosis to blame? Send your e-mail to Bobbie Battista and tune in at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time.

And I'll be back tomorrow with another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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