Russell Yates: The Man In The Middle

Russell Yates leaves courthouse in Houston after testifying in the murder trial of his wife. AP

Russell Yates took the witness stand on his wife's behalf. CBSNews.com Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen thinks his testimony could be a boon or bust to the prosecution and the defense.
Russell Yates is the man in the middle of his wife's capital murder trial. He is both a victim and a villain.

His testimony can help and hurt both prosecutors and defense attorneys.

Both sides have an interest in showing him to be a controlling figure in Andrea Yates' life but for different reasons and to different extents. Both sides want to tear him down -- but just a little -- and both sides want to prop him up but ever so slightly.

So far has been either unable or unwilling to explain one of the central questions of this sad story: how it came to pass that he failed or refused to heed the many warning signs the medical community gave him about his wife's propensity for psychoses.

The still-hidden nature of Russell Yates' true relationship to his wife and to his role in why she killed their five children has affected the way his testimony has played out over the past two days on the fifth floor of the Harris County Courthouse in Houston.

Both prosecutors and defense attorneys have been forced to treat him with courtesy, if not outright respect, while they position his testimony to fit their respective cases.

Neither side wants Russell Yates to say something in front of the jury to upset the fragile calculus both sides have relied upon as they move their respective cases toward closing arguments. And so, what we've gotten from Russell is precisely what each side hoped to get from him, but nothing more and certainly not the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about why things happened the way they did that morning in the bathroom of the couple's home.

Andrea Yates' lawyers certainly wanted jurors to know that Russell wore the pants in the family. It helps them make their case for Andrea's lack of proper medical care. They didn't want those jurors to go so far as to think that Russell was so controlling and dominating toward Andrea that she might have killed their kids as an intentional and quite deliberate act of revenge.

Painting Russell Yates as the sole bogeyman in this case really doesn't help the defense achieve the only goal is must achieve in order to spare Andrea Yates from life in prison or a lethal injection. Which is proving to jurors that she was mentally ill and didn't know right from wrong when she drowned her five children in the bathtub of their home last June 20th.

So Andrea's attorneys had to walk that fine line. They decided they had to call Russell as a defense witness in order to help fill in some of the blanks left over from the State's witnesses and Yates' own medical experts. Once they decided to call him, defense attorneys were hoping simply that he could help explain how tough it was for Andrea -- without taking too much blame on himself -- while at the same time telling jurors that he had no idea of her potential for monstrous evil.

They were hoping that Russell's controlling relationship would be apparent to jurors but not overwhelming to them; that it would make Andrea's mental health history and treatment understandable if not excusable. With those fairly superficial goals in mind, Russell Yates' testimony Wednesday was a success.

He told the jury, for example, that he didn't perceive Andrea as dangerous despite her repeated episodes of bizarre behavior.

"Neither of us (he and his mother) thought it would be a problem leaving her by herself an hour here and there," he told jurors with no apparent trace of irony since Andrea Yates managed to kill all of the children in about a half-hour on that awful morning after Russell had gone to work but before his mother had arrived at the house to help out.

Russell also told jurors that both he and Andrea "wanted what's best for the kids" and "both loved our children." What that does for the defense, of course, is make Andrea's actions last June all the more incomprehensible and inexplicable and that ties in with the legal standard the defense must prove to get the insanity verdict it seeks.

Prosecutors, too, wanted to show Russell as a controlling figure in his wife's life, but much more so than their defense counterparts. But the State, too, had to walk the tightrope in the way it treated Russell on the witness stand.

For a variety of reasons, prosecutors also don't want the full story to come out about the relationship between Russell and his wife and how it came to affect the children in such a final way.

First, Russell's not on trial here -- he's not the one who killed the kids -- and prosecutors don't want jurors venting their anger at the husband instead of the wife who stands in the dock. If the State portrays Russell too much as the manipulative monster, it runs the risk of giving jurors -- eight of whom are women -- a reason to show sympathy for Andrea's plight both last June and now.

Nor does the State want to toy with the notion that Russell is the victim here since there aren't many living, pro-prosecution "victims" in a case when a mother kills her children and then gets the support of her husband.

The State thus has a vested interest in giving jurors the impression that they ought to have at least some sympathy for Russell, not his wife, and one way to accomplish that is to not attack him on the stand for his many shortcomings.

That said, the State methodically examined Russell Thursday for several hours with an eye toward two main prosecution themes.

First, the State wanted to send a message to jurors that, despite her mental instability, Andrea Yates was performing many "sane" acts -- entering into legal agreements and cooperating with him in the decision-making process any couple undertakes when it buys a home, etc. -- in the months and years before she killed her kids.

The reason for this is simple. It is possible under Texas law for Yates to be deemed medically insane but legally sane; for jurors to believe that she suffered from a "mental disease or defect" but still knew right from wrong. And Russell Yates' chronology, offered to jurors under the State's questioning, certainly suggests that Andrea WAS capable of doing "sane" things -- acting sanely if you will -- even while she suffered from her psychosis.

But more importantly perhaps, the State wanted jurors thinking about the notion that Andrea Yates may not have been so psychotic after all last June 20th. Russell may have been such a dominating and smothering influence upon her that she finally "snapped" -- in the criminal sense of the word -- and killed the kids as a way of getting back at him.

Russell Yates' testimony, from the prosecution perspective, helps set up a scenario where the State's medical experts, scheduled to testify next week, come to the stand perhaps to tell jurors that women who are repressed in this fashion every now and again lash out in very violent ways -- ways which are not the result of legal insanity.

Russell Yates didn't have it easy in court the past few days. And who among us would trade lives with him? But the curious dynamics of the case, the legal strategies employed by the lawyers, and the implausible nature of how he acted toward his wife when it could have made a difference to their children make him much less a sympathetic figure and much more an ambiguous one.

by Andrew Cohen
  • John Esterbrook

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