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Thursday, July 27, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Yates found not guilty by reason of insanity

HOUSTON — Andrea Yates, who said she drowned her five children in the bathtub because she believed she was saving them from Satan, was found not guilty by reason of insanity Wednesday at her second murder trial.

Yates, 42, will be committed to a state mental hospital and held until she is no longer deemed a threat. If she had been convicted of murder, she would have been sentenced to life in prison.

At least one expert in the case, New York forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner — who interviewed Yates in May as the prosecution's lead expert witness — predicted she would be released quickly because her disorder is being well-managed. "I expect she will be home soon," he said.

However, other experts said it can take decades before psychiatrists decide a patient is healthy enough to be released, and even then a judge can reject those findings.

That Yates was mentally ill — she said she believed she was possessed by the devil and that the media had planted bugs in her house to record her poor parenting — was never in doubt during the four-week trial. Neither was the fact that she had committed the crimes: She called 911 minutes after killing the children and confessed.

But experts for the defense and prosecution disputed whether she was insane the day of the slayings. Under Texas law, defendants can be found not guilty by reason of insanity only if the defense proves the accused did not know right from wrong.

The jury, which deliberated for 13 hours over three days, found that the former high-school valedictorian and nurse was not sane the day five years ago when she waited until her husband went to work and then drowned her children, one by one.

The crime stunned the nation and raised awareness of postpartum psychosis.

Welner, of New York University's School of Medicine, said he respected the jury's "difficult decision" but disagreed with the verdict.

"There's a tremendous amount of evidence supporting the fact that she knew what she was doing was wrong," he said.

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At trial, he testified that Yates killed the youngsters because she felt overwhelmed and inadequate as a mother, not to save their souls. He also said Yates showed she knew her actions were wrong by waiting until her husband left for work to kill them.

Yates appeared shocked when the verdicts were read, and her supporters and family members began to cry.

The children's father, Rusty Yates, said the jury reached the right decision. "Yes, Andrea took the lives of our children. That's the truth. But also yes, she was insane," he said outside the courthouse. The couple divorced last year, and Rusty Yates has since remarried.

Andrea Yates had a well-chronicled history of mental problems, which had led to several hospitalizations and at least two suicide attempts.

A deeply religious woman, she believed she was failing to properly home-school her children in the Houston suburb of Clear Lake and was haunted by visions that one of her sons would become a gay prostitute.

In 2002, a jury found her guilty of murdering her children. But the convictions were thrown out on appeal last year because an expert witness who served as a consultant to the TV show "Law & Order" had testified Yates may have gotten the idea to drown her children and plead insanity from an episode of the show.

No such episode existed, and the court concluded the testimony might have prejudiced the jury.

However, the jury's decision in the first trial to spare Yates the death penalty stood. So the only options available in the just-concluded trial were life in prison or treatment in a state mental hospital.

Prosecutors had charged Yates in only three of her children's deaths: Noah, 7; John, 5; and Mary, 6 months, leaving open the possibility she could face further legal action for the deaths of Paul, 3, and Luke, 2. However, prosecutor Joseph Owmby said he is recommending against such a move.

After the verdict, defense attorney George Parnham said, "The right thing was done. This case is almost a watershed for mental illness in the criminal-justice system."

Owmby said he was deeply disappointed. While Yates was mentally ill, Owmby said, she understood that killing her children was wrong.

During most of the trial, Yates sat ashen, her bangs hanging over her eyes. But when the prosecution Monday described the slayings, she cried, wiping her tears with a red bandana.

After a commitment hearing today, Yates will be sent to North Texas State Hospital in Vernon, a prisonlike maximum-security facility.

Yates did not testify. Her lawyers presented much of the same evidence as in the first trial, including six psychiatrists who testified that Yates was insane.

During a videotaped 2001 jail interview, Yates told a psychiatrist that her children had not been progressing normally because she was a bad mother and that she killed them because "in their innocence, they would go to heaven."

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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