HOUSTON — Russell "Rusty" Yates has only one family member left to lose. On Wednesday, he slipped into the witness box to defend his wife, Andrea Yates, who is on trial for drowning the couple's five children in the tub.
Russell Yates rocked nervously, averted his eyes and wept as he described a family crushed by a mental sickness whose severity they underestimated. Andrea Yates has confessed to killing the children, and pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. If her lawyers are unable to convince the jury she was insane, she could be executed or spend life in prison.
"She's wonderful," Yates told the jury. "I mean, just so involved with the children. She loved them, held them, read to them, gave them activities. She was wonderful."
To illustrate Andrea Yates' descent into sickness, defense lawyers showed silent home videos of happier days: the Yates children watching monarch butterflies light on milkweed. The Yates children jumping on their parents' bed while a pregnant Andrea Yates gazes into the mirror, stroking her swollen belly.
Rusty Yates knew his wife's mental history by heart and narrated the string of doctors, hospitals and mixtures of pills with hardly a hesitation. Andrea Yates tried to kill herself at least twice. She'd heard voices. The young mother was discharged from a mental facility one month before she killed her children. She was in a psychiatrist's office days before the deaths. During the visit, Rusty Yates testified, the doctor chided Andrea Yates for thinking "negative thoughts." She'd been taken off her antipsychotic prescription just weeks before the children were killed.
When defense lawyer George Parnham asked why the family placed Andrea Yates in the care of a psychiatrist they didn't particularly trust, her husband sighed. "I guess at the time, I just saw all psychiatrists as the same," he replied. "They all had degrees on the wall and--that was my mistake."
The testimony was filled with similar lamentations. "None of us saw Andrea as dangerous," Yates said.
"She had her two prior suicide attempts," Parnham pointed out.
"That's true," Rusty said.
"Did that ring any bells?"
"Unfortunately," Yates replied, "no."
Parnham made no effort to camouflage the darker sides of the Yates household. He prompted Rusty to read aloud a poem from "Perilous Times," a Christian leaflet to which the family subscribed. It was an allegory about the condemnation of "Modern Mother Worldly," a mother who--beguiled by society into ignoring the Bible--refuses to punish her children. "Modern Mother Worldly cast in Hell," Yates read. "Now what becomes of the children of such a Jezebel?"
Parnham also had Yates describe the months the family spent living in a cramped, converted Greyhound bus--a vehicle they bought from the same preacher who penned the newsletter. The boys slept in a makeshift bedroom in what had been the bus luggage bin. It was during those days that Andrea Yates first tried to kill herself.
The youngest baby, Mary, was born in November 2000. Andrea Yates had been sick for years, and the couple knew there was a good chance Yates might slump back into depression with the birth of another child.
But they had decided to risk it, Rusty Yates explained, because they thought they'd found a cure for Andrea Yates' depression. They believed Haldol, a potent antipsychotic drug that had fished Andrea Yates back from the depths of depression in 1999, could work again.
Within a few months of Mary's birth, Yates was too depressed to talk or eat. When her husband checked her into a mental hospital, he had to carry her to the truck, and bend her legs to tuck her inside. About a month before the children were killed, Yates was unexpectedly discharged from the hospital, her husband told the jury.
Andrea Yates had her final psychiatric appointment June 18. "We'd been living with this for months," Rusty Yates said. "And I was beaten."
Two days later, his children were dead.