Yates' Husband Takes Stand

022702, Russell Yates testifies at wifes trial, jm CBS/AP

The husband of the woman who drowned their five children testified on her behalf Wednesday.

CBS News Correspondent Maureen Maher reports that through the testimony of a devastated but loyal husband, the defense painted a picture of a family that had no concept of the magnitude of his wife's mental illness, or any real idea how to deal with it.

Rusty Yates described how just weeks after wife Andrea first tried to kill herself with sleeping pills in 1999, he found her in the bathroom with a knife to her throat.

He told jurors he said, "Andrea, give me the knife."

He said she unemotionally responded, "Let me do this."

Yates wrestled the knife away, but he didn't take her to the hospital until the next day.

CBS News Legal Consultant Andrew Cohen points to this as an example of how Rusty Yates' decisions may have contributed to the situation.

Yates told jurors that after the knife incident, after one injection of the powerful antipsychotic drug Haldol, Andrea went from completely catatonic to being "more open with me than she ever had been. It really gave me a lot of hope."

Yates also told the jury a psychiatrist removed her from an antipsychotic medication in 1999, contradicting the doctor's testimony at the Houston woman's capital murder trial.

He said the doctor, Eileen Starbranch, initiated the decision. Starbranch testified earlier the couple decided to stop taking the medications and that they were considering having another child against her warnings.

Yates told jurors the doctor simply discouraged the Yates' from having more children. He said the doctor told the couple if they were to have another child there was a 50 percent chance Andrea Yates would again suffer from psychosis.

"She said if we did have any more children she would like to start Andrea on an antidepressant early," Russell Yates said.

Andrea Yates, 37, is on trial for capital murder in the June 20 drowning deaths of the couple's five children and could face the death penalty if convicted. She has pleaded innocent by reason of insanity.

After Yates attempted suicide twice in 1999, Starbranch treated her for about five months for postpartum depression with psychotic features following the birth of the couple's fourth son, Luke.

Russell Yates told jurors the doctor discouraged, but didn't forbid, the couple from having more children.

"Did (Starbranch) seem adamant about not having another kid?" defense attorney George Parnham asked.

"Not really," Russell Yates testified.

Earlier Wednesday, prosecutor Joe Owmby asked Starbranch if she had ever advised the couple that psychosis symptoms were likely to resurface if they had another baby.

"No," said Starbranch. "I never plan for psychosis."

Starbranch said when she counseled the couple against having more children neither of them reacted strongly. She added that she "definitely" did not recommend Andrea Yates quit her medication.

A medical chart note on Aug. 18, 1999, the day Starbranch gave the advice, reads:

"Apparently patient and husband plan to have as many babies as nature will allow!" the psychiatrist wrote. "This will surely guarantee future psychotic depression."

Russell Yates also described how his family lived in a converted Greyhound bus, exchanged letters with a traveling preacher and his wife's suicide attempts.

In earlier testimony Starbranch, a defense witness, said she remembered Yates being "warm and loving" with her four sons.

Yates, 37, is on trial on two murder charges for the drowning deaths of three of the five children. She has pleaded innocent by reason of insanity.

To prove insanity, defense lawyers must show the Houston woman suffered from a severe mental disease and didn't know the difference between right and wrong at the time of the drownings.

Yates is charged in the deaths of 7-year-old Noah, 5-year-old John and 6-month-old Mary. Charges eventually could be filed in the deaths of Paul, 3, and Luke, 2.

Starbranch was questioned by prosecutors Wednesday morning about a handful of lawsuits filed against her and her contact with Dr. Mohammad Saeed, who treated Andrea Yates in the three months before the drownings.

"I've never spoken with Dr. Saeed," Starbranch testified. "I wouldn't know Dr. Saeed if he was sitting in this courtroom now."

Starbranch said she went through her office records before coming to court and found she had no messages from Saeed or any requests for Andrea Yates' medical records.

Prosecutor Joe Owmby then produced a fax cover sheet sent May 9, 2001, with a handwritten note from Starbranch's assistant to Saeed.

"Here are the medical records on Andrea Yates," the cover sheet on the 20-page fax said. "Thanks for your (patience.)"

Starbranch said she didn't know how to work a fax machine and couldn't confirm that the fax had been sent.

"I don't know," Starbranch exclaimed. "I've been known to fax things upside down."

Defense attorney George Parnham asked Starbranch to look at a timeline of Yates' medical history which showed the fax was sent in May during Andrea Yates' second stay Saeed's Devereux Texas Treatment Network. She first became his patient March 31.

Andrea Yates' brother and mother are also expected to testify on her behalf.

On Tuesday, Starbranch told jurors the extent of Andrea Yates' mental illness was worrisome.

"If left to her own devices she wouldn't have physically survived because she wasn't taking care of herself," Starbranch said.

"She would rank up there with the five sickest patients I've ever seen," added the psychiatrist, who has been in practice since 1975 and seen thousands of patients.

A little more than a year after Starbranch last saw Andrea Yates on Jan. 12, 2000, the psychiatrist said she received a call from Russell Yates saying his wife was sick again after giving birth to a fifth child.

Starbranch said she made a note that Andrea Yates needed to be admitted as soon as possible, but Yates never arrived.

The psychiatrist said she later learned that Yates had been admitted to a treatment center closer to the family's home. Starbranch told jurors she never was contacted by doctors at the facility where Andrea Yates was taken.

  • John Esterbrook

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