Strange Days In Court

Andrea P. Yates is escorted from the court after being arraigned before State District Judge Belinda Hill in an auxilliary Harris County court room in Houston, Friday, June 22, 2001. Yates, a former nurse said to be suffering from postpartum depression, allegedly told police she murdered her five children. The court appointed an attorney to represent her.
To give you a sense of how truly bizarre this case is, it seems that the longer the trial of Andrea Yates rolls on, the more the two sides seem to agree about key issues. I suppose it is altogether fitting in a case that will rise or fall on the issue of insanity that the defense has a rooting interest in emphasizing the horrible nature of the crime while prosecutors try to portray the defendant as deliberative.

The defense, for example, agrees that Yates killed all five of her children — defense lawyers even were willing to stipulate to that in court Tuesday — which means that her attorneys are willing to concede most of what the State has to prove to gain the conviction it is struggling so mightily to gain. Prosecutors, meanwhile, agree that Yates is and was mentally ill, which means that the State is willing to concede a major portion of what the defense must prove in order to gain the acquittal by reason of insanity they are seeking.

It makes for a strange day in court. Take Houston Police Detective Robert E. King, for example. He's straight out of central casting or the old-school Texas Rangers, with a big booming voice and the type of courtroom demeanor and élan we used to read about in law school. He looked at jurors when he spoke. When he heard a question from the defense he didn't think was quite kosher, he waited for the prosecutor to object before he answered the question. He even made sure he turned to the jury and said "SWAT Team" for emphasis and effect after telling the prosecution that he was a member of the Special Weapons and Tactics Team before graduating to the homicide division.

So what did the impeccably trained King say in court? Well after educating the jury about the ins-and-outs of the detective business, and after thoroughly confusing the rest of us with what was supposed to be a very clear-cut it rendition of what he did and saw at the Yates house on June 20th last year, King admitted that he and his detective buddies on that day discussed the strong possibility that Yates was off her rocker both during the assault on her children and after, as she waited in the living room of her home before going down to the station. "The nature of the crime," King said in court, "you just have to wonder." You could see the smiles on the faces of the defense team through the backs of their jackets.

What the prosecution had called King to do, in fact, was very different and it provided the best glimpse yet of how the lawyers are playing the case are as well as how Judge Belinda Hill reacts when the chips are down. King was supposed to authenticate the actual clothes the Yates children had been wearing on the last morning of their lives and this King did quite effectively. But before he could identify those clothes to the jurors, the defense objected, strenuously and repeatedly, to such a proposed dog-and-pony show by prosecutors.

George Parnham argued that showing the clothes to jurors was inordintely prejudicial to Yates and added no probative value to the government's case since the identity of the children was not in doubt. And just to prove he meant what he said, he offered right then and there, before the jury and God and everyone, to stipulate to the fact that Yates had killed her kids. Why? Because that's not really a contested issue anyway and Parnham did not want those little pajamas hanging around the jury room at the end of the case.

Prosecutors countered by claiming, with a straight face, that they needed jurors to see the clothes so they could evaluate how big the children were when they died which, the State's Joe Owmby said, went to the issue of how deliberative Yates had to have been when she held them under water until their lungs gave out. What Owmby meant, naturally, is that he wanted those jurors to see those clothes and to think of the last time they were worn and wanted, in particular, to have those clothes looming over jurors on big poster boards during deliberations as monuments of sorts to the real victims here.

This should have been a no-brainer for Judge Hill, who quickly should have told prosecutors to forget it and to prove the size of the kids either through photos of them or through the medical examiners who are scheduled to testify about how they died. But the judge hemmed and hawed and then finally allowed the clothes in before changing her mind somewhat and preventing Owmby from posting the names of the children on each poster-board full of clothes. The little episode showed me how tough prosecutors are playing this case and how concerned the defense is about being overwhelmed by emotion and it reminded me of how much discretion a trial judge has in a case like this, even a trial judge who isn't particularly top-shelf material.

Then prosecutors brought the defendant's mother-in-law, Dora Yates, to the stand hoping she would simply identify pictures of the kids and then reiterate what she had said right after the killings that Yates was fairly normal. But each time prosecutors asked her to talk about that "normal" business, she offered jurors another example of just how abnormal Yates was. Again, the defense was delighted and prosecutors were befuddled. And again, incidentally, Judge Hill blew a ruling when she allowed Dora Yates, hardly qualified in matters of mental health, to testify about whether Andrea Yates knew right from wrong.

So on it goes, with both sides and the judge stumbling a bit, and with witnesses for the prosecution helping prove the defense case. It's all a prelude, really, to the real trial here, the trial between medical experts, which will begin in a few days when these topsy-turvy preliminaries are out of the way.

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