Fire And Ice At Yates Trial

Andrea Yates, the Houston mother accused of drowning her five children, is shown in a Houston courtroom, Sept. 20, 2001, during her competency hearing, in this image taken from television. Opening arguments in her capital murder trial are scheduled to begin Monday, Feb. 18, 2002, in Houston. She has said she is innocent by reason of insanity. AP/ KTRK/ Pool

Murder trials almost always offer jurors a stark choice between the government's side of the story and the defense's version of events. That's certainly true here in the case of Texas v. Yates, especially when it comes to the substantive issue of whether Andrea Yates knew what she was doing was wrong when she drowned her five children one by one in the bathtub of their home on June 20, 2001.

But opening statements in the Yates trial also offered jurors and the rest of us something a bit more rare. In tone and tenor, mood and perception, even in the selection of words which they chose to use, the government and the defense took very different paths on the way to making their first official impression on the jury of eight women and four men who ultimately will decide Yates' fate. The prosecution's opening was all about raw emotion and sadness and shock and horror, from the first words out of Joe Owmby's mouth, which rang like a sad biblical roll call – "Luke, John, Paul, Mary, Noah" – until the end, about 30 minutes later, when he reminded jurors that those five young Yates children had bruises on their bodies from their own individual death struggles with their own mother.

The state, of course, wants those jurors focused upon what happened to those poor children even after the defense is through presenting testimony about Andrea Yates' medical and mental condition. They want this case to be about emotion and anger and inconceivability. That's why Owmby told jurors about the pajamas the children were wearing in the soaked master bed where they were found, and why the first police officer on the scene made sure to tell the courtroom that upon entering the house he saw two sets of footprints, one large and one small, on the tiles near the front of the house. It is why, too, jurors heard about a little arm sticking out of the sheets on that bed and about froth on the mouths of three of the four children found there.

If the state's opening was fire, the defense opening was ice. Texas is going for the jurors' hearts. The defense is going for their minds. Prosecutors talk about nature. The defense talks about medicine and science. Indeed, Yates attorney George Parnham sounded almost like he was offering a medical seminar or a lecture on drug treatment programs during his opening remarks. Clearly, the defense feels as if it must educate this jury right from the get-go about psychosis in general and about Yates' sorry mental history in particular. And that meant talking about all sorts of tough-to pronounce and tough-to-spell medicine and any number of doctors with a bushel-basket full of credentials.

Parnham plodded along, giving those jurors whose gaze was still focused on him a brief chronology of Yates' mental history that even from afar is horrible to contemplate in its inevitability. But it won't be easy for the jury to grasp all that in a fashion that allows them to excuse what she did. Indeed, jurors may buy into every sigle medical fact the defense offers and still not believe that Yates was "legally" insane as opposed to medically insane. Perhaps that's why prosecutors seemed willing in their opening even to concede Yates' mental illness and draw their line in the sand instead over whether she was able to know right from wrong.

The defense needs to prove both a mental defect and that such a defect prevented Yates from forming criminal intent in order get the verdict they want. The state seems willing to maintain some level of credibility with jurors by acknowledging that she is and was a very sick woman. But prosecutors also seem to think that they have some pretty solid evidence – starting with Yates' call to the police in the first place – that no matter how psychotic she may have been at the time she killed her kids she knew what she was doing was wrong. I suppose there is some risk in this strategy by prosecutors since by conceding Yates' illness they are conceding a large portion of the defense case. But remember, when considering how this all will play out, that the defense cannot properly inform the jury that a "not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity" verdict doesn't mean that Yates will walk out of jail free once such a verdict is rendered. And that alone may be enough in a close case to push jurors into a guilty verdict.

Aside from the dramatic differences in the way each side presented its case, there was plenty of tension inside the courtroom. First, Judge Belinda Hill asked any future witness sitting in the courtroom to leave before the opening statement, which forced husband Russell Yates to leave shaking his head in disgust. He wasn't happy about it, either, because he had asked to stay as a "victim" under the state's victim rights law that allows victims to watch the trial that caused them to be victims in the first place. Then there was a confrontational tradition that seems peculiar to Texas where Yates was required to stand in front of the jury and have the charges against her read aloud before pleading "not guilty" again.

All in all this was the prosecution's day. And there isn't much the defense can do during this phase of the trial but take its lumps, make whatever small points it wants to make during cross-examination, and then present its medical case. That's the way it goes when the defendant confesses, when the defense does not contest that confession, and when both sides have a vested interest in magnifying the sheer horror of what happened to those poor, poor kids.


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  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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