HOUSTON — A slumped, blank-faced Andrea Pia Yates was sentenced to life in prison Friday after a jury agreed in half an hour to spare the life of the mentally ill housewife, who drowned her five children in the bathtub.
The panel of four men and eight women had deliberated just 35 minutes when the jury buzzer rang. Yates' family came running, the audience rustled in their seats and Judge Belinda Hill rushed in the side door and raced to the bench so fast nobody had time to stand. "Verdict, verdict, verdict, verdict," Yates' husband, Russell "Rusty" Yates, chanted to himself, twitching his legs and twining his fingers.
As Hill read Yates her fate, the convicted woman turned to her attorneys and asked what the legal language meant. Defense lawyer Wendell Odom spoke into her ear, and Yates nodded. A few minutes later, she shuffled from the courtroom, giving a sidelong glance toward her mother, brothers and sister.
Yates, 37, a former nurse who struggled with mental illness for years, had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Earlier this week, the jury rejected her insanity claim after just a few hours of deliberation and found her guilty on two counts of capital murder. The panel had to decide between life in prison and death by injection. But the jury decided Yates doesn't pose a future threat to society. She will be 77 before she is eligible for parole.
Yates was tried in Harris County, in a court system that accounts for roughly one-third of the convicts awaiting execution on the state's death row. But in a radically uncharacteristic move from the Houston district attorney's office, prosecutors passed up the chance to present evidence in the punishment phase and stopped short of asking for a death sentence.
"Nothing I can do will restore their lives; the death penalty can't restore them," prosecutor Joseph Owmby told the jury in his closing statement. "If you want to sentence her to life rather than a death sentence, you will have done the right thing."
Afterward, Owmby said he wanted the jury to pick a punishment. "I didn't think the facts in this case warranted me recommending the death penalty."
The other prosecutor, Kaylynn Williford, avoided asking for death outright but insinuated in her closing argument that she considered execution an acceptable punishment. "Those children never had a chance," Williford said. "You need to think about the pain those children endured, and the terror and fear. . . . Mrs. Yates had the benefit of friends and family and the health system, and she turned her back on that."
Williford meant to push for execution without asking for it directly, she later explained. "Everyone talks about making this a women's issue, a political issue. But the issue to me is five dead children."
It's been nearly nine months since Yates poured dry cereal for the children, then summoned them to the bathroom and killed them one by one. Noah, 7, John, 5, Paul, 3, Luke, 2, and 6-month-old Mary were buried together on the outskirts of town after a funeral in a church they'd never attended. Each of them would have celebrated another birthday since then. Williford mounted their portraits on a sheet of poster board and asked the jury to take it with them into their deliberations.
The dead children themselves have been eclipsed these past weeks by their mother's trial. Aside from murmurs of "yes," "no" and "not guilty," Yates' voice is seldom heard. Nevertheless, the gaunt woman in baggy dresses and schoolmarm spectacles became an unlikely lightning rod for women's rights groups, mental health advocates and justice system critics.
Her case spurred public debate about methods of prosecuting the mentally ill and the dangers of postpartum depression. This week, a human rights group filed a complaint with the state of Texas. Yates was over-medicated, prematurely discharged from the hospital and given inappropriate drugs, the Citizens' Commission on Human Rights-Texas charged.
"This was a difficult defeat for us, but it raised certain issues in the mind of the public," defense lawyer Odom said. "If we did that, it wasn't in vain."
Standing outside the courthouse, defense lawyer George Parnham read aloud from a note penned by Yates from jail. Without apologizing, Yates says she regrets any pain she caused her family and that mental illness "brought me to a place" that allowed her to kill the children.
The note continues with a brief eulogy for each child: Inquisitive Noah, John's "cute grin." "Precious Paul," "beautiful Luke" and Mary--"such a loving baby with big blue eyes."
"Thank God I was blessed with such a precious family," the letter concludes.
Meanwhile, Rusty Yates took the lectern at an impromptu sidewalk news conference. Ever since he had stepped dry-eyed from his brick house the morning of June 21 and told reporters Andrea Yates wasn't in her right mind when she'd drowned the children the day before, he has made a very public point of standing behind his wife.