Her crime—drowning her five children in a bathtub—was unthinkable. But was it understandable? How did a clean-living, all-American woman like Andrea Yates snap? Suzanne O'Malley takes a hard look at a disturbing case that's riveted America.
Andrea Pia Yates is barely visible when I enter Judge Belinda Hill's packed Houston courtroom. Then her bright orange jumpsuit—with the words 'County Jail' stenciled across the back—grabs my eye as surely as her unthinkable crime captured the national consciousness. Last June, Yates drowned her five children one by one in the bathtub of her suburban Houston home.
The defense team has entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. But Harris County District Attorney Charles Rosenthal Jr. believes that, after three months of antipsychotic medication and treatment in the jail's psychiatric unit, she is competent to stand trial. He is asking for the death penalty in a state that leads the nation in executions and a county that leads Texas in putting people on death row. The immediate business at this competency hearing, Assistant District Attorney Joe Owmby explains to the jury of 11 women and one man, is whether "Yates is rational today—not was she rational at the time of the crime."
Mention the name Andrea Yates and you'll start an avalanche of questions and opinions. Say she did go crazy: Maybe she drowns one child—but five? That takes conviction; it's not like someone who instantly regrets pulling a trigger. A 7-year-old is strong—how could she drown him? Did she drug him first? Didn't the husband notice his wife was psychotic? Where was her family? Her doctors? Child Protective Services? Where, some would like to know, was God?
After days of observing Andrea, talking to her family, and examining more than 2,000 pages of records from doctors, nurses, therapists and social workers, the answers become clearer. So does the fact that the murders of Noah, John, Paul, Luke and Mary Yates might have been prevented if even one thing had gone right.
The few who have heard Andrea's 90-minute taped confession call it chilling. Andrea, 37, first drowned 2-year-old Luke, followed by Paul, 3, and John, 5. She carried each child's body to the master bedroom, placed it on the bed, and covered it with a sheet. As she was drowning 6-month-old Mary, Noah, 7, confronted her. "What's wrong with Mary?" he asked and then, realizing what was happening, fled. Andrea chased Noah through the house, dragged him to the tub, and drowned him alongside his dead sister. There is no evidence that any of the children were drugged.
Next, Andrea telephoned the police, saying cryptically, "It's time."
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