Doctor No-Know

Jutta Karin Kennedy, left, smiles after receiving a handout from anti-death penalty activist David Atwood, right, outside the Harris County courthouse in Houston Friday, March 1, 2002, where Kennedy's daughter Andrea Yates is on trial for murder. Yates is charged with two counts of capital murder for the June 20 drownings of three of her five children. She has pleaded innocent by reason of insanity. In the center is Fairy Caroland, Russell Yates' aunt.
How much impact will the testimony of a reluctant witness have on the jury that must decide the fate of accused child murderer Andrea Yates? Legal Analyst Andrew Cohen tackles the issues in this commentary.
The first visible sign that Monday would be a tough day for Dr. Mohammed Saeed came early in his key testimony in the Andrea Yates trial when he revealed that he has a lawyer guiding him through the morass of legal trouble that has cropped up since his former patient drowned her five children just two days after visiting Seed's office last June. A witness who has his own lawyer is a witness who doesn't want to testify, doesn't want to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth; doesn't really want to be in the courtroom at all. Dr. Saeed was that witness.

The second visible sign that Dr. Saeed was in tough on the witness stand came when he was forced during direct examination by Yates' attorney George Parnham to actually say "I'm rethinking my statement" when confronted by Parnham with one of the many inconsistencies between what he said before the jury and what he had previously said in a pre-trial hearing in the case.

In many a trial, a witness who says "I'm rethinking my statement" is really saying: "I forgot how I was instructed to answer that question by my attorney and I'd like to take another stab at it in order to muddy up the record." Dr. Saeed was that witness.

I'm sure I've seen more hapless witnesses on the stand but I cannot think of any as important to a capital murder case as Dr. Saeed is to the State of Texas' case against Andrea Yates. He is the last doctor who treated her, just 48 hours or so before she killed her kids, and thus is in the best possible position of all to tell the jury and the rest of the world what Yates' mental state was like and how she was acting on the last Monday of the lives of her children.

His testimony might have been, literally, the "best evidence" of the only real disputed issue of the whole case-whether Yates' illness precluded her from understanding right from wrong last June 20th.

Except that we now know that Dr. Saeed completely blew his diagnosis of Andrea Yates last June. Whether the jury buys that theory or not; whether the criminal justice system recognizes it or not; or whether a civil jury ultimately reaches that conclusion or not everyone in that courtroom Monday understood that the good doctor tragically underestimated the nature and severity of Yates' illness.

Indeed, his diagnoses of Yates were so different from those of just about every other doctor who treated her before last June's incomprehensible tragedy that it all but shouts out "malpractice" or at least "incompetence" or "indifference."

What other doctors saw as severe and obvious psychosis in Yates - a doctor who testified before Dr. Saeed did Monday told jurors she was so upset by Yates' condition last March that she vented her disgust to a colleague - Dr. Saeed apparently saw as severe postpartum depression. A difference of degree, sure, but also one of substance since his inapt diagnosis then prompted him to alter the way he treated her.

Instead of focusing upon anti-psychotic drugs, for example, including the drug Haldol that had worked for Yates in the past, the Doctor settled in early June for giving Yates anti-depression medication that obviously didn't work. Yates was off Haldol for about two weeks on June 18th when she visited Dr. Saeed's office for the last time in a condition, he conceded, was "increasingly declining" and he still wasn't able or willing to give her adequate help.

He authorized Yates' release from the Devereux Treatment Network in League City, Texas on May 14, for example, after the nurses' charts there showed her on a suicide watch, refusing food, and mute. His rationale? He told prosecutors that he had based his upbeat evaluation of Yates based upon what Yates herself had told him.

No one asked why a doctor in a psychiatric hospital would rely upon his patient's self-evaluation, much less a patient who was, according to her own charts, employing poor concentration and impaired judgment at the time.

Two days earlier, those same charts suggested that Yates was "somber" and "flat" and on May 11th she was described as "preoccupied" and "unkempt." And jurors also heard about how Yates was sent to drug-rehab therapy sessions at the hospital where in true Orwellian language she was described as participating "by listening."

The defense did ask why a patient with no history of drug abuse would be forced into a therapy session like that, but no one seemed to have a good answer.

It gets worse. Dr. Saeed appeared so intent on not answering any single defense question directly that he wasn't even able or willing to fully deny perhaps the most serious allegation against him. When asked if he had altered his records of Yates after the killings to include the phrase "denied psychotic" symptoms - a blood libel for doctors if there ever were one - the best Dr. Saeed could muster was "not to my recollection at all" before generally denying the charge.

Now, I understand that the doctor is concerned about the wrongful death lawsuit that is almost certainly headed his way by what's left of the Yates family, but you would think that a question about a doctor falsifying his own notes to protect his interests at the expense of his former client would at least generate some unaltered candor and not some legal babble in the heat of the moment. It didn't. Dr. Saeed never met a direct question he could answer Monday and my guess is that the jury knew it.

So the doctor was Monday's big loser at the Yates' trial, just as Russell Yates was the big loser for a few days last week. But just because the defense team successfully painted Dr. Saeed as a testimonial and medical sad sack doesn't necessarily mean that they are closer to the goal of proving Yates was legally insane last June.

It wouldn't be that difficult, it seems to me, for jurors to agree with every bad impression left upon them of the doctor and still conclude that Yates knew right from wrong when she killed. Just because she got poor medical and psychological care from Dr. Saeed, some juror might conclude, doesn't necessarily mean she isn't guilty.

By Andrew Cohen