Defense expert: Mother accused in deaths of five children not yet competent to stand trial

Wednesday, September 19th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

HOUSTON (AP) _ Andrea Yates' mental state is improving but she is not yet well enough to immediately go on trial in the drownings of her children, a defense psychologist testified Wednesday.

``She is rapidly getting better,'' Dr. Gerald Harris, a clinical psychologist, testified at a competency hearing. He has visited Yates four times since June 20, when she summoned police to her southeast Houston home and officers found the bodies of her five children.

Jurors _ 11 women and one man _ were selected Tuesday. They will have to decide if Yates, 37, is fit to stand trial on two capital murder charges in the drowning deaths of three of the children.

If the jury finds her competent, a trial date will be set. Yates has pleaded innocent by reason of insanity.

In brief opening remarks to jurors, defense attorney George Parnham said Yates eventually would be able to stand trial, but was not ready now, ``because of the severity of the illness, and because of the nature of the treatment she is receiving.''

He said doctors were concerned that when Yates in court hears details about the children in court, it might ``trigger her back into a deep psychotic state.''

Prosecutors made no opening remarks.

Harris testified that in his first conversation with Yates, five days after the slayings, she spoke of having conversations with Satan and left him concerned that she was minimizing her mental illness.

``You're not going to defend yourself if somehow you believe your dying is getting rid of Satan,'' said Harris, who also met with Yates before Wednesday's hearing began.

He suggested a trial could be possible in a month or two.

Yates glanced occasionally at the witness. Relatives were seated in the front row of spectators although her husband, subpoenaed as a witness, was not in the courtroom.

If she is found incompetent, the state can commit Yates to a mental institution for up to 18 months with progress reports every 90 days. If jurors find her incompetent, they also will have to decide the likelihood that Yates will become competent.

Police say Yates admitted killing her children after officers arrived at her home. The four youngest children _ John, 5; Paul; 3; Luke, 2, and Mary, 6 months _ were found wet on a bed under a sheet. Noah, 7, was dead in the bathtub.

Yates' husband said she suffered from postpartum depression after the births of her two youngest children. Medical records submitted to the court show that Yates attempted suicide twice after the birth of her fourth child and was warned by a doctor to carefully consider whether she should have any more children.

The National Organization for Women and other groups held a candlelight vigil Tuesday night across from the jail where Yates is being held. They carried signs asking that she receive ``treatment, not the death penalty.''