Andrea Yates, a Texas woman convicted of drowning her children in a bathtub, was granted a new trial by an appeals court in Houston on Thursday. The court ruled that a prosecution expert's false testimony about the television program Law & Order required a retrial.
Yates, who had received diagnoses of postpartum depression and psychosis, confessed to police in 2001 that one by one she had drowned her children, ages 6 months to 7 years. According to testimony at the trial, she was overwhelmed by motherhood, considered herself a bad mother, suffered postpartum depression, had attempted suicide and had been hospitalized for depression. A Houston jury convicted her of murder the next year for three of the drownings, rejecting her insanity defense. The case ignited a national debate about mental illness, postpartum depression and the legal definition of insanity.
Thursday's ruling was narrow and novel. It turned on testimony by Dr. Park Dietz, a psychiatrist who was the prosecution's sole mental health expert. Dietz testified that Yates was psychotic at the time of the murders but knew right from wrong. The latter conclusion meant that she was not insane under Texas' unusually narrow definition of legal insanity.
On cross-examination, Dietz was asked about his work as a consultant on Law & Order, a program Yates, the appeals court said, "was known to watch." He was asked whether any of the episodes he had worked on concerned "postpartum depression or women's mental health."
"As a matter of fact," he answered, "there was a show of a woman with postpartum depression who drowned her children in the bathtub and was found insane, and it was aired shortly before the crime occurred."
That statement was false: There was no such episode. The falsehood was discovered after the jury convicted Yates.
Dietz, who did not respond to several messages seeking comment Thursday, said at the time that his testimony was based on a mistaken recollection.
Five mental health experts for the defense testified that Yates did not know right from wrong or thought what she did was right.
Dietz was the lone mental health expert to testify for the prosecution, and the only one to say she knew right from wrong.
The trial court denied a defense request for a mistrial, but the jury was told about the false testimony during the sentencing hearing. The jury rejected the death penalty and sentenced Yates to life in prison.
On Thursday, the Court of Appeals for the 1st District of Texas, ruled that the motion for a mistrial should have been granted.
"The state used Dr. Dietz's false testimony to suggest to the jury that appellant patterned her actions after that Law & Order episode," the decision said. "We conclude that there is a reasonable likelihood that Dr. Dietz's false testimony could have affected the judgment of the jury."
Dietz did not explain the supposed significance of the Law & Order episode at the trial. But prosecutors returned to the subject in a separate cross-examination and in closing arguments, suggesting that she had copied the program in a way that implied lucid planning and premeditation.
Dr. Lucy Puryear, a psychiatric expert for the defense, was questioned about the nonexistent program. In an interview, Puryear said the questions conveyed a powerful impression to jurors. "Had she seen that show and gotten ideas from it," Puryear said, "it would say that she had the ability to think in an abstract way and come up with a plan. That would mean she could tell the difference between right and wrong."
The appeals court said that there was no evidence that prosecutors had knowingly offered or discussed false testimony.
Joseph Owmby, one of the prosecutors in the case, said his office would ask the three-judge panel to reconsider. If that fails, he said, prosecutors will ask the entire appeals court and then the state's highest court for criminal matters, its Court of Criminal Appeals, to reverse the panel's decision. "It wasn't material," Owmby said, meaning that Dietz's testimony about Law & Order was not a significant factor in the jury's decisions. "It didn't affect her fair and just trial rights at the trial level."
He said no decision had been made about whether to retry Yates should the appeals fail.
At a televised news conference Thursday, George Parnham, one of Yates' lawyers, said his client was not seeking an immediate release from prison.
Yates, now 40, "was surprised and not unpleased" by the decision, Parnham said. "She understands what's happening."
Todd Foxworth, warden at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Skyview Unit, delivered the news to Yates. "She smiled and said she was basically just kind of in shock," he said. "But she was very happy. Physically and mentally, she's doing as well as I've ever seen her."
Parnham said he had no plans to seek her release from the prison about 140 miles north of Houston, where she works in the flower garden and has janitorial duties.
"Andrea is where she needs to be right now, as far as security is concerned for her," he said. "The last thing Andrea needs, quite frankly from my perspective, is to walk from the TDCJ Skyview Unit into the public arena."
Dietz was a technical adviser to both Law & Order and Law & Order: Criminal Intent as recently as last year, according to tvtome.com, which tracks television credits.
Deborah W. Denno, a law professor at Fordham University who has studied and written extensively about the Yates case, was critical of other aspects of Dietz's testimony, too. He testified, for instance, that Yates' delusions that her thoughts were coming from Satan indicated that she must have known they were wrong. "He interpreted everything she did as evidence of premeditation and intention," Denno said. "He is a hired gun in the worst sense."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
Andrea Yates, pregnant with daughter Mary, and her husband, Russell, sit with their four boys, from left, John, Luke, Paul and Noah. Yates' capital murder convictions for drowning her children were overturned Thursday.