Houston Mom's Competency On Trial

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To understand what is happening to Andrea Yates this week at the Harris County Courthouse, it is important to understand first what is not happening, says CBSNews.com Legal Consultant Andrew Cohen.

Yates, the mother accused of drowning her five children in the bathtub of their home in June, is not on trial this week and indeed may never be tried for her role in the deaths of her sons and daughters. And the key, core issue of the whole case — whether Yates was legally insane or not at the time of the killings — shouldn't even come up when prosecutors and defense attorneys take center stage in Judge Belinda Hill's crowded courtroom.

The Case
Andrea Yates, 37, is charged with capital murder in Houston in the deaths of sons Noah, 7, and John, 5, and 6-month-old daughter Mary. Also killed were sons Paul, 3, and Luke, 2. Police say she drowned the children one at a time in her home on June 20. She has pleaded innocent by reason of insanity.—AP
Before there's a trial, before there's an insanity defense, there must be a competency hearing to determine whether Yates, now, has the legal capacity to stand trial. This is a gateway hearing, a curtain-raiser on the rest of the case, and we probably won't know a whole lot more on Friday about Yates' condition on June 20, when she reportedly called the cops and told them that she had drowned her kids, one by one, than we do now.

Under Texas law, the question of the week is relatively simple: Yates is presumed under the law to be competent so her lawyers must convince a jury of her peers that Yates does not have a "sufficient present ability to consult" with her attorneys "with a reasonable degree of rational understanding" or that she does not have "a rational as well as factual understanding of the proceedings" against her. In other words, Team Yates must convince jurors that Yates doesn't understand what is happening to her in court and cannot have it explained to her by her attorneys.


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Legal Consultant
Andrew Cohen

If Yates' attorneys and expert medical witnesses can convince jurors that their client is incompetent to stand trial, the criminal process will be put on hold. There will be no murder trial, for the time being anyway, while Yates is kept under close supervision at a state mental institution. Under this scenario, Yates presumably could be "re-tested" for competency at a later date if her attending doctors believe she has for one reason or another become "competent" as the law defines it.

On the other hand, if Yates' lawyers do not meet their burden of proof, if they cannot convince jurors that Yates is incompetent, then she will stand trial for murder, probably by the end of the year. And that's when, absent some sort of plea deal, we likely will hear about legal insanity and about Yates' prior medical treatment and about the conditions of her home before the June 20 tragedy.

Expect this to happen when all the shouting is over this week. Every legal expert I spoke with to prepare for the week's hearing told me that Yates indeed would be found competent.

The confidence of these wise folks stems from three fairly clear realities of this case. First, Harris County is, as a local journalist put it, the "capital of capital punishment" in America, meaning that jurors here aren't the touchy-feely kind who are willing to cut a break to a defendant like Yates, especially when the issue is whether she ought to even stand trial for the crimes of which she is accused.

Second, the court's appointed medical expert reported in August that Yates now is competent to stand trial, largely as a result of the medication she is taking. Since judges cannot be experts in every area of life, and since juries are much more likely to trust a court-appointed expert, no other testimony likely to be presented this week will have nearly as much impact as this.

Finally, Yates likely won't be able to meet her burden and prove her incompetence because the best and most sympathy-inducing evidence she has is inadmissible and irrelevant at this stage of the case. Her defense cannot and will not emphasize Yates' state of mind in June to try to make their case that she is incompetent today. They will be left instead to argue, against the information offered by the court-appointed expert, that even with the medication she now is on she doesn't know what's what. And no one seems to think that argument is going to get very far with this jury in this case.



By Andrew Cohen
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