HOUSTON — Every glance and every word will be dredged up and reexamined for traces of lucidity as a jury decides whether a Christian homemaker was insane when she drowned her five children in a bathtub.
As the trial of Andrea Pia Yates got underway Monday, the jury--dominated by women--listened to a painfully detailed re-creation of June 20, 2001. That was the morning that Yates fed her children a breakfast of dry cereal and then killed them, one by one.
Prosecutors say she wrapped the bodies in a bed sheet, phoned her husband and said: "I finally did it."
Yates, who is charged with two counts of capital murder for the deaths of three of her children, slipped into the courtroom Monday wearing a long, dark dress. She looked puffy, and her hair was so thin that her scalp shone through under the courtroom lights. She murmured "not guilty" by reason of insanity so softly that Judge Belinda Hill asked her to repeat the plea.
Her lawyers describe the 37-year-old as a doting mother who had been taken off psychotropic drugs and was too sick and delusional to know what she was doing. Yates' father had died a few months earlier, they said, and she blamed herself.
In his opening argument, defense lawyer George Parnham invoked the litany of doctors who treated Yates through years of suicide attempts, electroshock therapy and crippling postpartum psychosis.
"She not only didn't know what she was doing, but she believed it was right," Parnham told the panel of four men and eight women. "She did not appreciate the lawfulness of her acts."
But prosecutors say the deaths of Noah, 7; John, 5; Paul, 3; Luke, 2; and six-month-old Mary were carried out meticulously--and that Yates showed clear signs of comprehension and remorse.
Yates sat calmly on a love seat while investigators swarmed the house, pointing out clean glasses for water and keys to unlock the back door. Later that day, she told a detective she was bound for hell for killing her children.
"She knew it was illegal, that it was a sin, that it was wrong," prosecutor Joe Owmby told the jury.
To succeed with an insanity defense, Yates' lawyers will have to persuade the jury that she was unable to distinguish right from wrong.
If Yates is found insane, she could be sent to a hospital for the mentally ill. Otherwise, she could face life in prison--or be executed in a Texas death chamber.
Yates' husband, Russell, spent Monday in the corridors outside the courtroom. He will testify in his wife's defense later in the trial, which is expected to last two weeks.
During Monday's testimony, the jury listened to the 911 call Andrea Yates placed minutes after the last of her children died. Between ragged breaths, Yates begged for the police but refused to explain why she needed help.
"I just need them to come," she said.
"Do you have a disturbance?" the dispatcher asked. "Are you ill?"
"Yes," Yates replied, "I'm ill."
"You sure you're alone?"
"No," Yates said. "My kids are here."
The dispatch tape underscored the slim shades of meaning that will become important in gauging Yates' mental health: Lawyers sparred vigorously over whether she refused to explain or whether she was too delusional, as her defense argued.
"I have a feeling we're playing semantics here," defense lawyer Wendell Odom said.
In fact, Yates' fate could swing on semantics and detail. Over and over, lawyers for both sides pressed witnesses on whether Yates made eye contact, whether she appeared to understand and whether she displayed any emotion.
When Officer David Knapp arrived, Yates answered the door in soaked clothing, hair dripping wet. Her eyes were wide and she minced no words.
"She looked straight at me and said, 'I just killed my kids,' " Knapp said. Then, the police officer testified, the mother turned and led him past the puddles and footprints on the tile floor, over the soggy carpet and into the darkened master bedroom. There was a mattress on the floor.
"I noticed a small arm sticking out from under the covers," Knapp said. "I saw what looked to be four lumps in the bed."
It was the four youngest children, all dead. Noah was found floating face down in the bathtub. The children still wore pajamas.
Using a floor plan of the modest brick house, Knapp on Monday mapped the trail of wet footprints--one adult set, one childlike--that were in the hallway when he arrived.
Yates settled onto a love seat in the sparsely furnished living room.
"She just sat," Officer Frank Stumpo said Monday. "She was very stoic, very calm. . . . I asked her if she realized what she'd done."
"Did she make eye contact?" prosecutor Kaylynn Williford asked.
"Yes," Stumpo said.
"Did she make a response?"
"She said, 'Yes, I do.' She looked directly at me and answered the question very directly."
Stumpo said that when he rummaged in the kitchen for a clean glass, Yates directed him to the china cabinet. When he remarked on the converted bus parked out back, she said, "We lived in there."
As he marched her outside in handcuffs, she directed him to keys to unlock the back door.
As Stumpo drove to the jail, Yates sat in the back of the squad car. By then the story had hit the airwaves, and a radio host launched into a "harsh tirade" about the mother who had drowned her children. Stumpo glanced in the rearview mirror.
"She turned to the left and looked out the window. A sullen, quivering look passed across her face," he told the jury. "She seemed very embarrassed."