Inside The Mind Of The Yates Jury

Dr. Harminder S. Narula, left, an assistant medical examiner who performed autopsies on three of the Yates children, points to a screen showing where bruises were found on the body of Noah Yates in this artist's rendering during the fifth day of testimony Friday, Feb. 22, 2002, in Houston.
In his commentary, Legal Consultant Andrew Cohen offers his analysis of the jury that spent less than four hours convicting Andrea Yates of the murders of her children.

Whatever else the jury's snap guilty verdict says about the Andrea Yates trial, it says that lawyers for both sides needn't have spent an inordinate amount of time and money bringing before jurors esteemed members of the medical community.

In the end, jurors didn't appear to pay attention at all to the dozens of hours of testimony about mental illness and its effect on the defendant; testimony offered by brilliant experts from both sides who disagreed about the ultimate issue in this case. They didn't bother themselves with the reams of medical records they had in their possession or with the fancy reports the experts had prepared analyzing in detail Yates' condition before, during and after the one-hour period last June 20th when the killing took place.

They didn't care much that experts for both sides had come to court to tell them that Yates, indeed, was severely mentally ill-psychotic - even on the day of the killings. It didn't matter that those experts agreed that she was schizophrenic and suffering back then from postpartum depression or even psychosis. They didn't care that she wasn't on her anti-psychotic medicine at the time of the drownings even though she so clearly needed to be on them. And it didn't matter much that Yates' treating doctor at the time of the deaths tragically underestimated the nature and extent of his patient's illness.

The Yates' jury also didn't pay any attention at all, apparently, to the testimony of Dr. Phillip Resnick, an expert in child killings, who gave an explanation for why Yates committed the acts that seemed far more reasonable and grounded in evidence than did the State's explanation. Nor did the jury give much effect to the testimony of Dr. Lucy Puryear, an expert in women's mental health, who more than any other doctor who testified to this jury explained what life must have been like for Yates, with her mind all twisted and turned and addled in those last few weeks and months.

The jury didn't worry too much that the State's own expert, Dr. Park Dietz, hadn't actually treated a patient in 20 years and relied for his conclusions on the testimony of one doctor who said that his own observations of Yates were inconclusive and upon another witness who turned out to be, well, just plain wrong. And it didn't give jurors heartburn that no other expert came forward on behalf of prosecutors to counter the voluminous expert testimony from defense experts. And the fact that a doctor said Yates was "one of the sickest patients" she had ever seen didn't hold jurors back, either.

In the end, from what we can gather, this group of twelve, which sat so attentively through the long trial, simply reviewed the language of Texas's insanity statute, perhaps listened to an audiotape recording of Yates' confession, and then in a flash decided that she was legally sane when she drowned her children and thus guilty as charged.

Never mind the experts, this jury just said through its verdict, we are going to hold Andrea Yates to her own words when she said it was wrong in the eyes of the law and society and God to have drowned those children. Never mind that the statute doesn't quite limit the definition of wrong in that way.

In the end, they couldn't even wait for the sun to set on the first day of deliberations before they sent the message that the insanity defense statute in Texas may be on the books but it certainly isn't in play.

As both defense attorneys said during their closing arguments: if Andrea Yates isn't legally insane, no one is. No one, apparently, is or will be in Texas, but that's a matter ultimately for the people of Texas, through their elected representatives, to either change or not.

By their verdict Tuesday, the jury sent the message that they are quite comfortable, thank you very much, with the narrowness with which the law is currently written so that person who is "severely mentally ill" and even psychotic still may be sane.

I cannot say I am shocked that the verdict here was guilty. In fact, given the way the Texas law is written, I expected it. But I certainly didn't expect it so quickly and so emphatically, especially after how strong defense experts were and how weak the State was in offering an alternative motive for the crime.

After a nearly four-week-long trial, one that was so hotly contested back and forth, you would think that tact alone would have forced jurors to spend a little more time at least appearing to deliberate before they announced to the world that they were ready.

I'm sure supporters of this verdict will call it swift justice and say that it comports with the image Texans (and outsiders) have of the justice system in this state. Well, it sure was swift. But there is something about the speed of the verdict in a case like this that says more to me about the people who delivered it and the people who sought it than it does about the person who'll ultimately have to face the music for it.

By Andrew Cohen