A Dark Day In Court

Andrea and Russell Yates with children Noah, Mary, Luke, Paul and John (l-r), Houston, Texas, undated photo
AP (file)
Andrea Yates sobbed and cried as images of her dead children were shown in court. CBSNews.com Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen thinks this devastatingly emotional day will decide the case.
What do you write when there is too much to write about but nothing really to say? It would take a writer far more talented than me to find the right words, in the right combination or formula, to fully and accurately depict what it was like to be in Courtroom 5A of the Harris County Courthouse Thursday morning between 10:45 and 11:35 local time.

No one should ever have to see photos or videos of dead babies, of dead children. No one should have to see close-ups of their legs and faces as they all lay together on the bed they must have once cuddled on with their parents. No one should ever have to see a little boy lying face down in a bathtub full of cloudy water or that same boy lying face up next to the tub. No one should ever have to contemplate what it must have been like for those Yates children on that morning, just after they had finished eating their cereal. No child should have to fear it and no parent should have to imagine it.

And when Andrea Yates herself saw it all, she sobbed and cried and shook in a manner completely contrary to the way she has comported herself for the past four days. Did she finally realize what she did last June 20? Had she not played those death scenes over in her mind's eye before? Even additional doses of anti-psychotic medicine, administered by a jail doctor in anticipation of her reaction, could not quell the maternal instinct, when she saw the children she had birthed and raised and then killed, larger than life on a screen in the courtroom. That protective, nurturing instinct had turned inside-out that horrible morning eight months ago but Thursday in court it seemed to be back, or at least a part of it anyway.

It's not supposed to happen this way, actually. The defendant in a capital murder trial is not also supposed to be a victim herself: the mother of the victims. Indeed, we are used to seeing mothers cry over their lost children in courtrooms. But not from the behind the defense table and certainly not from under the cloud of a possible death sentence. And not when after they have confessed to the crime in a tone and manner that was as chilling as it was brief. Today was just the crowned jewel of surreality in a case that has been from its outset surreal and twisted and positively tragic for just about everyone involved.

There was a big fight between prosecutors and defense attorneys this week over the introduction of the crime scene video and the still-photos that were shown to jurors and now I can completely understand why. They were devastatingly emotional and jurors showed it. Some wiped their faces, others just looked down. One female juror just rocked back and forth in her chair as if she were just ready to explode into action. Another female juror propped up her head wih her hand and only occasionally looked over at Yates. One juror kept shaking her head. They all looked positively morose.

Jurors and the rest of us inside the courtroom initially were shown a series of photos from inside the Yates home that day. I suppose it was a fairly typical home that housed a couple and five children, although it was particularly dirty and untidy and littered with all sorts of clothes and boxes and crates and toys and well, just stuff, the kind of stuff some families are able to put away from time to time. To me it confirmed in a very small way what defense attorneys say when they talk about Yates not having her act together. Perhaps to the jurors the clutter and the kitsch and the mess will mean something else.

Then came the photos of the bodies of the kids. The first graphic photo was of all the children dead on their parents' bed and that's when Yates started to shake and cry. And when the next gruesome photo came up on the big screen -- a close up of one of the children on the bed -- Yates gasped loudly and began to really sob. Either by predetermined negotiation or just plain common sense, prosecutors then stopped putting the photos for everyone-including Yates-to see and started simply displaying them, one by grisly one, to jurors. I came away from that portion of the session stunned. I cannot imagine how those jurors felt after seeing so many more of the shots than I did.

Then, as if prosecutors hadn't made their point strongly enough, came State's Exhibit 65A, which was the crime scene video. I won't burden you with the particular images of it. Suffice it to say that the whole courtroom saw the whole video and even though everyone should have been prepared for what was shown there is nothing in the world that could have prepared anyone for the absolute contrast -- "stark contrast," the government's witness later conceded -- between the rest of the house and the two scenes of death, the bathroom and the bedroom. It was a contrast between the endless promise of youth and the finality of death; between all the evidence of past chaos and the stillness of the children; between everyday life -- breakfast with kids -- and lives forever changed.

The government poured it on during the afternoon, playing Yates' audiotaped confession while jurors thumbed through a transcript of her statement. If jurors take the confession literally, they surely will convict her, and perhaps sentence her to death, since the words on the page of the transcript fairly well establish all of the elements of the government's case. She described, in short, clipped words and phrases, how she took each of the children and drowned them.

First Paul, age 3, then Luke, age 2, then John, age 5, then Mary, age six-months, then, finally, Noah, age 7. She told the cop how Mary was in the bathroom with her, crying, while the first three children were drowned. She talked about the effort it took to drown them all, especially the older bo. She offered a motive -- unfathomable as it may seem -- that she did it because it was "time to be punished" because she was not a "good mother." And, perhaps most important for prosecutors since her state of mind is about the only contested issue here, she talked, briefly, about how she had been thinking about harming her children for years.

If, however, jurors focus upon the actual audio version of the confession, they may well pause before lowering the boom on Yates. Her answers were brief and completely expressionless. She offered no emotion, no verbal contour, as the defense pointed about, between answering a question about where she went to high school and uttering the words "drown the children." And she essentially answered every question but one, the one that asked why. When the cop asked "why were you going to drown your children?" she stared "eyeball to eyeball" at him across the table for 15 seconds before he was shamed into asking another question. She sounded much worse than her words appeared to be. No wonder prosecutors wanted jurors to have those transcripts. And no wonder the defense isn't shying away from letting jurors focus upon Yates' actual words.

One way or the other, it seems to me, the Yates case was decided today. Either jurors will keep the images they saw today fresh in their minds until deliberation or they will consider, too, that anyone who could wreak such havoc in such a short time on such innocent lives in such a fashion is far too sick for either prison or the needle.

By Andrew Cohen