The retrial of Andrea Yates is underway down in Houston, riveting both the public and defense attorneys who have followed the case for five years. Accused of drowning her five children on June 20, 2001, Yates is pleading insanity, as she did in her first trial. She was convicted, but last year an appeals court last year tossed her capital murder conviction on the basis of erroneous testimony by a state witness. The prosecutors contend now, as they did during her 2002 trial, that Yates was mentally ill but not insane when she killed her kids.
But in the last few years, three mothers in North Texas have done the same thing: Lisa Diaz, Deanna Laney and Dena Schlosser. Diaz drowned two children; Yates drowned five. Yates waited to act when no one was home, as did the three other mothers. Yates called 911; Schlosser told her husband on the phone that she'd killed the baby. All three women were acquitted by reason of insanity. So what's the difference between Yates' actions and the three other lethal mothers?
"The Texas insanity defense is so difficult," says Dallas attorney Robert Udashen, who successfully defended Diaz. "You need experts to come in and testify about their mental health. You also have to show they didn't know what they were doing was wrong. The prosecutors contended that [Lisa] knew it was wrong, and I think that is what the state is doing down in Houston. My position was Lisa Diaz killed her children to save them from this horrible life, because that was the right thing to do."
The Diaz and Laney juries had something the panel in the Yates's case doesn't have: forensic examinations by psychiatrists done not long after their arrests, and their psychosis came through loud and clear during those sessions. "It made a big difference in Lisa's case," Udashen says. "They could look and listen to her deal with questions. You can have someone recreate their state of mind, but it's never as good as seeing for yourself."
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Udashen was surprised to see that prosecutors had again relied on forensic psychiatrist Park Dietz to testify about Yates' mental state. He's the main reason Yates got a second chance: In testimony during the first trial, Dietz mistakenly contended the TV show Law & Order had aired an episode about a mother drowning her kids in a bathtub and beating the rap for murder by pretending to be insane.
"I've read some of the things Park Dietz says," Udashen says. Dietz has testified that Yates believed Satan had told her to kill her kids. Satan is bad. Therefore when she did what Satan told her, she knew she was doing something wrong.
"He kind of gets hung up on her beliefs about the devil," Udashen says. "To me that just underscores the fact that she's mentally ill, yet he relied heavily on that belief system. Of course he also lied on the stand in the first trial."
But prosecutors have announced their intention to put Dietz on the stand again during the rebuttal phase of the trial, making him a target for vigorous cross-examination by the defense. "If I were the prosecutor," Udashen says, "I wouldn't call him back. Maybe they had trouble finding somebody else to testify."--Glenna Whitley