Andrea Yates History Of Mental Illness, Former nurse Andrea Yates, whose postnatal mental illness led her to drown her five children, had her life sentence overturned at a retrial earlier this year, after successfully pleading insanity. Faith McLellan reviews the case and its implications for mental health in the criminal justice system.
The facts about what took place on the morning of June 20, 2001, in the suburban home of Russell (Rusty) and Andrea Yates, in Houston, TX, were never in dispute. At around 0900 h the children had finished their breakfast, and their father had left for work at the Johnson Space Center, where he was a NASA engineer.
Soon after, Andrea Yates filled a bath with water and methodically drowned, one by one, her five children: Noah, 7 years old, John, 5 years, Paul, 3 years, Luke, 2 years, and Mary, who was aged just 6 months. Andrea then phoned the emergency services and asked the police to come to the house. She also called Rusty at work and told him he needed to come home. When a police officer arrived and asked her what was wrong, she immediately told him: “I killed my kids.”
In jail, Andrea said she had considered killing the children for 2 years. She had not been a good mother to them, she said; they were not developing correctly. She claimed to have been marked by Satan, and that the only way to save her children from hell was to kill them. Then, when the state punished her for their deaths, Satan himself would be destroyed. Television cartoon characters told her she was a bad mother. She heard a human voice that told her to get a knife. On the walls of the jail, she saw satanic teddy bears and ducks. She said she was not mentally ill and had never been depressed because she had never cried.
Yates was arrested and charged with capital murder. She pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. After a jury trial in 2001, she was found guilty and sentenced, not to the death penalty, which prosecutors had sought, but to life in prison. Under Texas law, a life sentence meant she would have to serve a minimum of 40 years before being considered eligible for parole. Her conviction was later overturned on the basis of false testimony given by a witness for the prosecution, and she was granted a new trial. On July 26, 2006, she was acquitted by reason of insanity and committed to a state mental hospital.
Although Yates readily confessed to what she had done, and the crimes were committed in less than an hour, what led up to her killing her children had been building for years. Her story was complex and multifaceted. Odd family dynamics, fundamentalist religious beliefs, clinical care that was fragmented at best, and the quirks and inadequacies of the American medical-insurance system all had some role in the Yates’ family tragedy. The case also highlighted the lack of recognition of the potentially deadly consequences of postnatal disorders, and the limitations of the justice system in dealing with individuals who are mentally ill.
There is little in Andrea’s background to suggest that she would become, by her own description, “the most hated woman in the world”. Her upbringing, like her husband’s, was unremarkable. She was raised as a Roman Catholic; her husband as a Methodist. Both earned college degrees. Andrea worked as a nurse at Houston’s M D Anderson Cancer Center for 8 years, and Rusty was employed by NASA’s space-shuttle programme.
After the couple’s marriage in 1993, Andrea gave up her job and soon became pregnant. Over the next 7 years, she gave birth to five children and miscarried once. Their family life became increasingly unconventional and chaotic. At one point, they moved out of their house and into a camping trailer. For a while, they lived in a converted bus. Andrea taught all of the children at home; ran the household without any outside help; and also helped take care of her father, who had Alzheimer’s disease.
The Yates’ religious beliefs were also less than conventional. They were not members of any local church, but instead hosted a Bible study group in their home 3 nights a week. They had become attached, based on an encounter Rusty Yates had had in college, to an itinerant fundamentalist preacher, Michael Woroniecki. Woroniecki’s rhetoric was of a fire-and-brimstone type. His proclamations include the following: “Hell is right on the doorstep, waiting to bring you in.” Parents were especially responsible for ensuring the salvation of their children, he said, lest they “perish in hellfire”. He also said that parents ought to commit suicide rather than cause their children “to stumble” and go to hell.
This type of rhetoric represents “the dark side of religious pluralism, of religion in general and of Protestantism in particular”, according to Bill Leonard, dean and professor of church history at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC. Leonard points out that these views are often held by people with no institutional credentials and little, if any, accountability. He says these beliefs develop from a “gross misunderstanding of spirituality”.
Though Andrea Yates wrote to Woroniecki and his wife for advice, Woroniecki has denied that he had any influence on her delusions or behaviour.