Jurors deliberating in competency hearing for Texas mother accused of drowning 5 children

Saturday, September 22nd 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HOUSTON (AP) _ Jurors asked to rehear a portion of a psychologist's testimony about a Houston mother accused of drowning her five children and the woman's understanding of her role in their deaths.

The jury, made up of 11 women and one man, deliberated for nearly five hours on Friday to determine whether Andrea Yates, 37, is fit to stand trial on two charges of capital murder in the June deaths of her children. Jurors resumed deliberations Saturday morning.

After more than four hours of discussions Friday, the jury asked that a portion of Dr. Steven Rubenzer's testimony be read back to them.

``Would it be fair to say, the better she gets, given everything you know, the more fully she will appreciate what she did?'' defense attorney George Parnham asked the psychologist during cross-examination this week.

``I think so,'' Rubenzer responded.

``She's not quite there yet, is she?'' Parnham asked.

``I don't think so,'' responded the court-appointed psychologist, who testified Yates is competent to stand trial.

During closing arguments Friday, Parnham told jurors they should find Yates incompetent to stand trial so she can continue to recover from the psychotic features of her mental illness.

``What's the rush?'' Parnham said. ``Give her the benefit of the ability to be cognizant of what she did ... to be able to defend herself in a proper manner.''

Parnham said there is no question that Yates will eventually be tried if jurors find her incompetent now.

Prosecutor Joe Owmby said defense attorneys are confusing the issues.

``The issue is whether she is presently competent, not whether she has a mental disease,'' Owmby argued. ``She has to have a trial, and she's competent to have that trial today.''

During Owmby's closing arguments, Yates' husband, Russell, sat in the front row and shook his head, indicating 'no', but stopped after a warning from the judge.

Jurors will have to decide whether Andrea Yates meets the two prongs of competency: a sufficient present ability to consult with her lawyer with a reasonable degree of understanding and a factual as well as rational understanding of the charges against her.

Before closing arguments, the medical director of the Harris County Jail's psychiatric unit, Dr. Melissa Ferguson, testified that Yates was still displaying psychotic features and that the illness appeared to be in partial remission.

Rubenzer said Yates' psychotic features had subsided and ``As far as I know, her psychotic features are in full remission.'' He testified that while Yates might be mentally ill, she meets the legal definition of competence.

Rubenzer said Yates told him she decided to drown her children the night before they died. Dr. Gerald Harris, who evaluated Yates for her attorneys, has said Yates thought the devil lived inside her.

If found incompetent, Yates will begin treatment at a mental health facility with updates every 90 days.

If jurors decide she is competent, a separate jury will determine her guilt or innocence.

Yates was arrested June 20 after police say she called them to the family's home and admitted killing her children.

John, 5; Paul; 3; Luke, 2, and Mary, 6 months were found on a bed, and Noah, 7, was found dead in the bathtub.

The district attorney has said he will pursue the death penalty.