The Crowded Hour

Andrea Yates faces life in prison or the death penalty if convicted in the drownings of 7-year-old Noah, 5-year-old John and 6-month-old Mary. Charges later could be filed in the deaths of Paul, 3, and Luke, 2. 020312 AP / CBS

CBSNews.com Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen was covering Andrea Yates' trial in Houston.
Prosecutors said "jump" and the jury said "how high?"

On Tuesday, when the state of Texas asked jurors to convict Andrea Yates of capital murder for drowning her five children while she was severely mentally ill, it took the jury less than four hours to do so. And on Friday, when the state told jurors that a life sentence would be perfectly fine after all, it took the jury even less time to set that view in stone as well.

So now Yates, the Houston mother who destroyed her family in the span of an hour last June, gets to spend the rest of her life in a prison thinking about that crowded hour. And she's already starting to do just that.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of this thoroughly poignant case came after Friday's verdict, when lead defense attorney George Parnham read a note Yates had written thanking her doctors and lawyers for their support. The note contained a brief, loving description of each of Yates' murdered children, written as if she herself had not murdered them.

I don't see how Yates ever will regain her sanity. Every time she becomes sane enough to contemplate what she did that day the knowledge is likely to drive her back into her psychosis. What a horrible future.

As far as the recent past goes, on the other hand, the Yates' case had generated two questions that the trial was destined to answer. Weeks ago, everyone wondered how a jury dominated eight-to-four by women would react to a case that was at its core a story about a woman and her family.

Defense attorneys figured that better-educated women would be sympathetic to Yates because of her difficult family life and the way she was controlled by her husband, Russell. Prosecutors figured that women jurors would be less sympathetic to Yates because several of them had raised children without it leading to the sort of tragedy that befell the Yates family last June 20.

We now know that the defense had it all wrong and the prosecution had it all right when it came to whether loading this jury with women was a good idea after all.

The other central question as the trial began was whether jurors would be so overwhelmed by the horror of the acts that they wouldn't be willing to listen to the dense but important medical testimony that was at the heart of the defense case. The two strategies going into the trial were apparent during opening statements when prosecutors talked fire and brimstone and the defense talked medicine and diagnoses. The only chance the Yates team had of overcoming the transparency of her confession was to educate jurors about mental illness and why it would make someone say something they didn't exactly mean.

But the jury wasn't interested in learning a lesson from a bunch of doctors and lawyers, especially once jurors saw those little dead bodies, on video and in still photos. And they certainly weren't willing to take the long and winding road the defense experts had asked them to take, from schizophrenia to postpartum depression to psychosis to severe psychosis to killing your children because you thought it was right to do so because they would go to heaven and not go to hell.

So while the defense was forced to play the hand it was dealt, Yates' attorneys also lost the battle of emotion in this case. Even though the crime itself here was completely insane, and even though every single juror was absolutely inundated with conclusions about the severity of Yates' illness, no one on that panel was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.

We'll probably never know if the jury already was leaning toward life before prosecutors told them in closing arguments that it wasn't a bad idea. We'll probably never know if Tuesday's quick guilty verdict was the product of a jury room deal in which the question of Yates' ultimate sentence also was resolved at the time.

We'll never really know why the state suddenly turned on the brakes and stopped calling Yates an "evil doer" and started calling her the subject of "unique circumstances." Was it a purely legal, based upon the notion that prosecutors themselves couldn't argue with a straight face that Yates met the legal standards for the death penalty? Or was it a political decision as well, coming from head honchos in Harris County who no longer want their home turf to have a reputation for being the most condemnable place in America.

Whatever the case, this trial ended up being dominated from start to finish by the state's version of Andrea Yates' reality last June 20 and by the images of the dead children and the scene of their destruction.

I'll never look at a bathtub the same way again and neither, I bet, will any of the jurors. That's why they tuned out Andrea Yates' lawyers and doctors and experts. That's why a woman who everybody agrees was severely, medically ill, even psychotic, when she killed likely will spend the rest of her days in a jail instead of a hospital.
  • Lloyd Vries

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