Insanity Verdict

ByChris Cuomo
November 18, 2008, 1:42 PM

July 27, 2006 — -- Nobody would have imagined that this seemingly loving, devoted mom would ever harm her own flesh and blood. So why did Andrea Yates do it?

She and her husband, Rusty, had five children in six years, home-schooling them all. There was 7-year-old Noah, 5-year-old John, 3-year-old Paul, 2-year-old Luke and 6-month-old Mary. Doctors advised Yates not to have the fifth baby because of a previous bout she'd with postpartum psychosis.

But Dr. Lucy Puryear, a well-known psychiatrist who evaluated Yates, said her husband wanted another child, despite the fact that the couple had been told about the doctors' concerns. Rusty reportedly believed that since his wife had been treated for the previous episode it was OK to have another child, because if she fell into postpartum psychosis again, she would just get treatment.

"Postpartum psychosis occurs again and again -- and each episode is usually worse than the last. And this was about as bad as it gets," Puryear said.

What happened on the morning of June 20, 2001, seemed beyond comprehension. Andrea Yates, a former nurse and the valedictorian of her high school, had methodically drowned her five children, one by one, in the family's bathtub.

Images of the children on home movies and pictures -- and then in five tiny coffins -- horrified the nation.

Yates was placed in solitary confinement -- naked and on suicide watch -- where she became even more delusional.

But this didn't happen overnight. Yates said she had been haunted by disturbing thoughts for a long time.

"Initially, when I first saw her it was two weeks after the drowning. I went to see her in the Harris County jail, and she was so ill that it was impossible to question her. She was disoriented, confused, looking off into corner of room, listening to voices in her head," Puryear said.

Today, after five years of medication and therapy, we see a different Andrea Yates in tapes that were released exclusively to "Primetime."

Yates recalled how it felt when she went to jail. "That evening, I had some hallucinations and visions when I got to the cell. At Harris County, I had visions of being bound, and somebody peeling my skin away. I could hear the sound of the skin being torn away, and I thought I saw Jesus hanging upside down on the cross. And I had visions that [her son] Noah was Christ. He'd come back to earth," said Yates.

In the tapes, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner, who was hired by the prosecution, interviewed Yates for 14 hours. Welner said the tapes show Yates as an overwhelmed mother who methodically and deliberately murdered her children.

Yates even has a reason why each child was doomed. "I had visions, for instance, that John was gonna be a serial killer and that the other children would die tragic deaths and that Luke would become a mute homosexual prostitute. ... Noah would die a tragic death ... being stabbed."

Yates had suffered from mental illness for years -- depression with bouts of psychosis, suicide attempts and hospitalizations. Soon after the birth of her fourth child, Luke, she began to have violent thoughts.

Her delusions were fueled by the extreme religious beliefs of a bizarre, itinerant street preacher named Michael Woroniecki whom her husband, Rusty, had introduced her to.

Woroniecki's street preachings included the idea that women must be obedient to men and were responsible for their children's eternal salvation or damnation.

"I didn't want my kids to go to hell," said Yates.

In the months leading up to the murders, Yates' mental health deteriorated and she was hospitalized twice after the birth of Mary and the death of her father. When she returned home, she felt her children becoming more distant and withdrawn.

Yates became convinced that she was a bad mother, influenced by Satan. She felt pressured to kill her children while they were still pure.

"She believed that if she had waited longer, that they would be so corrupted by Satan that God would no longer allow them to heaven and they'd go to hell," said Puryear. "But in their innocence, while they were still so young, that God would take them."

Sixteen days before the drownings, her doctor made what some believe was a critical mistake: He took her off Haldol, a powerful anti-psychotic drug.

As the voices inside her head grew louder, she says she was afraid to ask for help.

"Satan can't read your thoughts, but if you say 'em aloud, he, he will hear them and he'll use 'em against you," Yates said. "I thought if I verbalize these fears that they would come about."

Less than a year after the drownings, defense attorney George Parnham represented Yates at her death penalty trial when the jury found her guilty.

"She knew she was going to hell, and she did the ultimate act of love, and sacrificed herself and saved her kids," Parnham said.

Yates was sentenced to life in prison in 2002, but that conviction was overturned and in her second trial, which ended July 26, things went differently.

"Five years ago, we couldn't get a jury past the pajamas and the crime scene videos. Very, very difficult to understand, to accept," Parnham said.

A lot had changed since 2001, including ideas about mental illness, and some of those changes were fueled in part by what Yates had done. But could the jury get past the horror of the crime?

Now, five years after she killed her kids, Yates has undergone a significant amount of medication and therapy. She can now talk about the details of that morning.

Yates said she waited until her husband left to start filling the tub. She said, "Drowning them" is "all I thought about."

Yates had a small window of opportunity -- one hour -- between the time her husband left the house and when her mother-in-law, Dora Yates, was expected to arrive. Doctors had warned the Yates family that Andrea Yates was not supposed to be left alone with the kids.

Welner says his videotaped interview showed that Yates had planned the murders for a long time but waited for the right moment when she knew there was no one around.

Here are some excerpts from Welner's conversation with Yates, from the tapes obtained by ABC News:

Welner: "Was Satan driving you to do this at the time? Did you think, at the time, that you were doing this because Satan was compelling you to do it? And, you know, the answer is the truth. The answer isn't the right answer. Just tell me the truth."

Yates: "Yes. I felt that."

Welner: "OK. This is why I'm uncomfortable with that answer. This is what you have to make sense from. If ... if Satan was driving you to do this, either Satan was driving you to do this, or you did this because you wanted your kids to go to heaven."

Yates: "I just see the torment as pushing me and ... and telling me."

Welner: "So, it was the torment? Is that what it was? Just tell me what it was."

Yates: "I didn't want my kids to go to hell."

In another clip...

Welner: "So what kept you from doing it when you got the idea?"

Yates: "Because there were people in the house."

Welner: "And what would they have done?"

Yates: "Stopped me."

Welner: "And why would they have stopped you?"

Yates: "Because they wouldn't think it was right."

Parnham argued these acts were not those of a sane person.

"Well, she was acting deliberately. There's no question about it. She had a delusion, and the delusion was that those kids needed to be saved from hell because she loved them," he said.

Andrea started the drownings with the boy she called Perfect Paul, a 3-year-old, who she said never gave her an ounce of trouble.

Yates: "I put him in the water until he stopped breathing."

Welner: "And what was your reaction when he began to struggle?"

Yates: "I just held him down."

Next was 5-year-old John, then 2-year-old Luke, and then 6-month-old Mary.

Finally, Yates said, she went to get her oldest son, 7-year-old Noah, who was somewhere in the house.

Yates: "I walked him to the bathroom. ... And I put him in the water."

She said he fought the hardest.

She left Noah in his pajamas, floating in the water.

Welner: "What would you say to Noah?"

Yates: "I miss you."

Welner: "Luke?"

Welner: "I miss you."

Yates: "I feel especially bad about Mary. She was so young, and I never got to know her."

"She was absolutely on track to make certain that those lives were going to be taken in order to send their souls to heaven. That is the delusion. Deliberate? Yes! Intentional? You bet," Parnham said.

Parnham said Yates believed she was taking care of her children by drowing them, and recalled how she treated her infant daughter, Mary.

"Andrea took that child's body, walked 26 steps back to the master bedroom, had placed that child's body in the crux of older brother John's arm and wrapped John's arm around that child. And I think it speaks volumes about what Andrea Yates was doing. She was sending her baby off in the arms of a protective brother. She even asked later, 'Are they in heaven?'" Parnham said.

But Welner said while she may have placed Mary in her older brother's arm, she also left her oldest son, Jason, floating in the water. Welner said Yates' methodical and calculating actions revealed that Yates knew she was doing something terribly wrong.

"In order to successfully kill all five children, one would have to be killed in such a way that the others were not alerted," Welner said. "Moving the children from the bathtub, one by one, and hiding them in a place neatly in a bed, guaranteed that someone would not happen upon the bodies, and then attempt to break up the crime."

The crux of the defense's case is that Andrea Yates' psychotic mind could not be judged as knowing right from wrong in the same way as a normal person's.

"When you have an individual who is so mentally ill that she believes that the very right thing to do for the child that she loves most in this world is to save their souls from hell and fire for all eternity, what mother ... what mother would not do the very best thing in order to accomplish that? And Andrea Yates did it," Parnham said.

While acknowledging Yates' mental illness, Welner still believes that she knew right from wrong.

"I don't believe that it was psychosis that made her choose to kill the children that day. She chose to kill the children that day for practical reasons," Welner said. "More mothers kill their children to make their lives easier, than do because of Satan."

"Was she wrong? You bet. But in that reality in which she existed, she was right," Parnham said.

In the end, it was Parnham's argument that would prevail. After four weeks, more than 40 witnesses, and hours of deliberation, the jury found Yates not guilty by reason of insanity.

So Yates will soon enter a psychiatric institution, where she will receive treatment. But people close to her say that the healthier she gets, the more pain and regret she feels.

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