In June 2001, Texas was rocked by an unfolding news story that few could believe. 37-year-old mother Andrea Yates had systematically drowned each of her five young children in the bathtub of their home before calling emergency services. Children whose ages ranged from 6 months to 7 years old, who had no chance of defending themselves. News footage and photographs of an average looking woman covered televisions and newspapers while the nation asked themselves; how could any mother do this?
Within minutes of killing her children, Andrea Yates admitted their murder. When police officers arrived after her 911 call she stated “I’ve killed my children” before quietly leading them upstairs to show them what she was saying was true. In the master bedroom officers discovered the bodies of the Yates children, John age 5, Luke age 2, Paul age 3, and Mary just 6 months old still wet from the bath water and covered in a blanket. 7-year-old Noah, the Yate’s eldest son, was found still in the bathtub.
Taken into custody, Yates was placed in solitary confinement for seven days where her fragile and disturbed state became apparent. She talked of the devil, of Satan being within her and her children, of needing to “save them from stumbling”’. Andrea Yates thought as a mother she must save and protect her children and in her delusion that meant taking their lives. She thought Lizzie Borden, a woman tried and acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe in 1892, was talking to her from the next shower stall. She repeatedly told officers that the only way Satan could be removed from her was for President Bush to execute her.
Andrea Yates had a long history of psychiatric illness with a diagnosis of postpartum psychosis given after the birth of her fifth child just months earlier. She had frequent stays in psychiatric hospitals and two previous suicide attempts. Health professionals had warned the family that she should not be left alone with the children and must keep taking her psychotropic medication. The case of Andrea Yates could not simply be attributed to an evil woman who selfishly took the lives of her children for her own gain. This was a case wrapped up in mental illness, in delusions and it was going to present a challenge for any jury to make a decision upon during trial.
“If I didn’t do it, they would be tormented by Satan….It’s like, you know, Satan, he can hear us, what we say…there was the thoughts about the TVs, and cameras in the house, and afraid Satan would ruin my children through himself, and that maybe even that I had some Satan in me” – Andrea Yates
In 2002, Yates was tried for the first time on charges of capital murder. Her defence team entered a plea of not guilty due to reasons of insanity while the prosecution pushed for the death penalty. The jury delivered a guilty verdict; Andrea Yates was deemed criminally responsible for the murder of her children and narrowly avoided death row, instead receiving a life sentence. Three years later, after an inaccuracy in expert testimony during her first trial was discovered, she was granted a new trial.
In this second trial in 2006, her defence team again offered a plea of insanity. After deliberating for twelve hours, the jury concluded that her mental illness was so severe at the time of the murders that while she was aware her actions were wrong in the eyes of the law; her delusional state meant she felt she was doing the right thing for her children. As a result, she was found not guilty and sent indefinitely to a psychiatric unit for treatment rather than a prison cell, where she still remains today. Two murder trials, two different juries and two opposite verdicts.
The evidence, witness statements and expert psychiatric testimony in both trials were almost identical, yet the verdicts reached were poles apart. The evidence in question which won Andrea Yates a second trial was that of renowned Forensic Psychiatrist Dr Park Dietz, an expert who had spent hours interviewing and assessing Yates after the murders. Part of his original testimony included reference to an episode of Law & Order, a crime television drama aired on NBC, which he believed had aired in the days before the murders featuring a mother who had drowned her children and received a verdict of not guilty due to insanity. This he thought, had contributed to Yate’s state of mind and her actions on the 20 June 2001.
It was later discovered that this episode did not exist and therefore this evidence should not have been included and heard by the jury. In the second trial, Dr Park Dietz once again testified for the prosecution but without his incorrect references, remaining with his view that despite her long history of psychiatric illness and diagnosis of postpartum psychosis, her actions in waiting for her husband to leave for work and calling the emergency services after drowning her children suggested she did know her actions were wrong, at least in the eyes of the law, and therefore in his opinion Yate’s should be held criminally responsible for the murder of her children.
Under Texas insanity law, whether a defendant is considered to have known their actions were illegal and wrong when they carried out the crime, can be enough to classify them as entirely sane and in control of their actions, and therefore criminally responsible, despite the presence of mental illness and delusions which prevent the individual being able to understand their actions were morally wrong at the time of the crime being carried out.
This time however, the jury did not agree with Dr Dietz. They felt that as a direct result of her psychosis, Andrea Yate’s believed she was protecting her children by killing them leading them to a verdict of not guilty of capital murder due to reasons of insanity.
Four years had passed in between the first and second trials of Andrea Yates. Four years in which there were a number of further high-profile cases of mothers murdering their own children due to mental illness. Many of which occurred in the same state as the Yates case, that of Texas, a state which picked up these stories with interest and the same state that the second jury pool for Yate’s 2006 trial was chosen.
In New Chapel Hill, near Dallas in Texas, one year after the conclusion of Andrea Yate’s first murder trial, 39-year-old Deanna Laney was arrested for murdering her two young sons and attempting to murder her third son by smashing their heads with rocks outside their home. 8-year-old Joshua Laney and 6-year-old Luke Laney died from horrific head injuries while 14 –month-old Aaron Laney somehow survived the attack but suffered severe head injuries. Deanna Laney stood trial for capital murder in early 2004 pleading not guilty by reason of insanity.
There were clear similarities in this case to that of Andrea Yates despite the method of killing being very different. Both mothers were religious and had home-schooled their children and both mothers called emergency services after the murders to request assistance. Five psychiatric experts assessed Deanna Laney and testified at her trial; with both the prosecution and defence experts in agreement that Laney was severely mentally ill at the time of killing her children with psychotic delusions, making her incapable of knowing right from wrong.
During the murders, Deanna Laney’s husband was asleep inside the house and expressed his total shock that his wife could be capable of such brutality against their children with no history of mental illness or risk to herself or her family.
Dr Park Dietz also testified in Deanna Laney’s trial and spoke of Laney’s delusional belief that God had ordered her to kill her children by way of stabbing, stoning or strangulation. He said Laney had told him she wanted to be selfish and keep her children but believed in order to prove her faith to God she had to carry out his wishes. Dr Dietz testified it was his opinion that Deanna Laney was legally insane at the time of the killings in that her delusions meant she was unable to understand that her actions were wrong.
This case was heavily publicized before, during and after the trial with news reports, talk shows and the trial itself being broadcast on Court TV. Deanna Laney believed she had done what she had to do and it was God’s wishes for her to kill her children, believing they would be resurrected. “I feel like he will reveal his power and they will be raised up. They will become alive again” she said. Deanna Laney was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to a psychiatric unit where she underwent treatment for her psychosis. She was released in 2012, after eight years of in-patient treatment, although with strict conditions on the interaction and involvement she is allowed to have with children.
Just four months after Deanna Laney killed her two sons, on 25 Sept 2003 in Plano, Texas, an ambulance was called for two young girls, Briana Diaz age 5, and Kamryn Diaz age 3 by a frantic father. Angel Diaz had arrived home from work to find his wife covered in her own blood mumbling “something happened to the girls…I didn’t want them to suffer”. The two girl’s bodies were laid out on the bed of the master bedroom, soaking wet and covered with a blanket, a scene eerily similar to that found in the Yate’s household two years earlier.
The two girls had been drowned by their mother Lisa, who then proceeded to stab herself in the chest, neck and arms in a suicide attempt. Lisa Diaz was charged with capital murder and pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
“She believed that people in the neighborhood were watching her, that evil spirits were in her house and that voices were telling her that she and her daughters were going to die a slow and painful death.” – Houston Press
In her trial the jury was shown video evidence of Diaz being interviewed by various psychiatrists, “It was just the evil spirits. I had to save them…I was scared” she tells them. Diaz did not have a history of mental health treatment like Andrea Yates but her defence successfully argued she was “in a delusional psychotic state” at the time of the murders, supported by the testimony of six experts. Lisa Diaz was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sent to the psychiatric unit to undergo treatment.
A year after the Diaz and Laney cases, a third mother in the state of Texas murdered her child and went to trial with a defence of not guilty by reason of insanity. On November 22, 2004, again in the city of Plano, Dena Schlosser amputated both arms of her 11-month-old daughter Margaret Schlosser. After the murder, she had contacted a local day care center who were concerned for the child’s safety, as well as that of Schlosser’s other two children. Dena Schlosser was found at her home singing Christian hymns and thanking the Lord.
Schlosser, like Andrea Yates, had a history of psychiatric illness with a suicide attempt just after baby Margaret was born and diagnosis of bipolar disorder. She had been admitted to hospital earlier in 2004 for a psychotic episode and her family had been advised not to leave her alone with the children due to risks she may pose.
Dena Schlosser, like Deanna Laney, believed she was instructed by God to harm her child. She believed God was sending her ‘signs’ to tell her what she must do, quoting a news item she had seen where a young child was mauled by a lion as a signal from God that the apocalypse was coming.
At her trial, her mental health history, diagnosis and state of mind during the killing were highlighted as reasons why she should be classed as insane at the time of the murder. She was found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to the same mental health facility as Andrea Yates.
The murder of young children, especially at the hands of their own mother, is a horrific crime. Many of the jurors who had to sit through these harrowing trials had their own children, some probably similar ages to children whose lives were taken, leaving an emotional mark that is difficult to get past. Andrea Yates was clearly mentally ill and her case is one which highlights the misunderstandings and in some areas, outright denial, of the severity that some mental illnesses can manifest and how they can affect an individual’s behaviour.
A person in the grips of psychosis does not see the world around them in the same way a rational level headed person does and it is in this light that the actions of Andrea Yates, while abhorrent, cannot be compared and considered in the same way as the actions of a mother who has murdered their children with no mental illness sitting on their shoulder. The case of Susan Smith, for example, a mother in South Carolina who in 1994 drowned her two young children in a lake before pretending to her family, police and the nation that her car had been stolen with the children strapped in the back. This was a callous selfish mother who saw her children as a barrier to a new life and relationship and she simply got rid of them in order to give herself free availability to have that life.
For Andrea Yates, those intervening years between her trials and the similar cases that arose during that time brought the issue of postpartum psychosis and mental illness much more into the public realm. This laid the foundations for an understanding that such events do happen and while the severity of these crimes can never be excused, not all these mothers are simply ‘evil’.
The one thing that has come out of this tragic case is a better awareness of postpartum psychosis and just how serious and dangerous it can be. This awareness, however, has come at a price. Andrea Yates remains in a secure psychiatric unit and now with her psychosis being managed, she has to live each day knowing that she took the lives of her five young children sixteen years ago while delusional and very unwell. An act that she can never take back.
For more on this topic, listen to Episode 23 of the Sword & Scale Podcast which covers the harrowing stories and more famous cases of women who have murdered their children including Andrea Yates, Casey Anthony, Megan Huntsman and Elaine Campione.