HOUSTON — They came Thursday one by one--the husband, the school friends, the mother--to ask a jury in the nation's most notorious death penalty system to spare the life of Andrea Pia Yates.
"Her life is over one way or the other," defense lawyer George Parnham told the jury. "Her children are gone, and she sits here, through her lawyers, asking that she be spared."
Yates, a chronically depressed woman who admitted drowning her five children in the bathtub last summer, pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. But the jury took just a few hours Tuesday afternoon to reject the insanity claim and declare the 37-year-old homemaker guilty.
Now the same jury, a panel of four men and eight women, must decide between sentencing Yates to death or sending her to prison for a minimum of 40 years.
Instead of driving home the children's gruesome deaths, the prosecution rested its case Thursday without calling a single witness. And on the eve of the jury's deliberations, defense lawyers kept the testimony terse.
When Yates' 73-year-old mother remembered her "very good, very obedient, good daughter," she poked bony fingers up beneath her wire-rimmed glasses and dabbed at her tears.
"I'm here pleading for her life," said Jutta Kennedy, whose husband died shortly before Yates killed the children. "I've lost seven people in one year."
Yates' husband, Russell "Rusty" Yates, sat in the witness box for a few minutes and answered just a handful of questions. "She's the kindest and most caring person I know," he said. His lips quivered, and he began to sniffle. "She's always concerned about the kids' safety."
The string of witnesses told the tale of Andrea Yates' slide into isolation. There were old friends who spoke of Yates' gradual disappearance from their lives, a brother who described the sibling relationship as "not particularly close" and in-laws who didn't know Yates had tried to kill herself.
Friends described a shy, intense girl who graduated first in her high school class and kept herself thin with laxatives and forced vomiting. Yates was hard on herself, they said--mortified when she earned a C. As a mother, she was dauntlessly perfect.
"She was an awesome mom," college friend Molly Maguire-Stefano said. "You know, cloth diapers, she had all the crafts."
Parnham hit the same points over and over: Until she began talking about hurting herself and the children, Yates was never violent. Her lone flash of rebellion--until the day she called police and said flatly, "I killed my kids"--was a speeding ticket.
Having been found guilty on two counts of capital murder, Yates already has lost any hope of walking out of prison before the age of 77, when she'd be eligible for parole under the lightest possible punishment. When jurors retire to ponder her fate, they must decide two questions: whether she is likely to commit another violent act, and whether her background, character and morals provide mitigating reasons to spare her life.
The decision to send Yates to death row must be unanimous. But she is standing trial in the toughest court in Texas: 157 of the 454 convicts on the state's death row were prosecuted here in Harris County.
"The X factor is, this is a Harris County jury, which is traditionally and notoriously death hungry," Houston defense lawyer Kent Schaffer said. "The jury did not spend a whole lot of time discussing the complex evidence presented to them. I take that as a real bad sign."
Closing arguments were set for this morning, and the jury will begin deliberations by lunchtime, Judge Belinda Hill said.
Times researcher Lianne Hart contributed to this report.