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Archive for Thursday, March 14, 2002

Defense lawyers to fight for mother’s life today

March 14, 2002

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— Prosecutors likely face an uphill battle proving that Andrea Yates, despite her severe mental illness, poses a continuing threat to society and should be put to death, legal experts say.

"Before it was a much tougher case for the defense," said Dan Shuman, a Southern Methodist University law professor. "I think now it is a much tougher case for the prosecution. The jurors now are operating under no illusions that she is going to be set free."

The trial's punishment phase was to begin today. The Houston mother who drowned her five children in the family bathtub last year was convicted Tuesday of capital murder.

The jury that found her guilty now has two choices life in prison or death by injection. Jurors will be asked to answer two questions: Does Yates pose a future danger to society, and are there mitigating circumstances to sentence her to life rather than death?

The jury must be unanimous for Yates to receive the death penalty. If only 10 jurors agree on either of the two issues, she'll receive life. Agreement by fewer than 10 will result in a hung jury.

"The choices the jurors are facing now are between executing this woman and sentencing her to a very lengthy term of confinement," Shuman said. "I would be shocked if it came back capital punishment. ... They have heard all the information about how this woman struggled with mental health problems."

Yates was convicted on two capital murder charges in the deaths of 7-year-old Noah, 5-year-old John and 6-month-old Mary. Charges have not been filed in the deaths of Paul, 3, and Luke, 2.

Even after rejecting Yates' insanity defense, jurors might still give substantial weight to her mental history during the penalty phase.

"Their refusal to accept it the first time is not any indication they won't accept it in sparing her life," said professor James Cohen, of Fordham University's law school.

Yates would have to serve at least 40 years of a life sentence before becoming eligible for parole. If sentenced to die, Yates would become the eighth woman on Texas' death row.

Texas by far, with 262 executions since 1982, is the nation's most active death penalty state. During the past 20 years, two women have been put to death.

The Yates family lived in a middle-class neighborhood of brick houses in southeast Houston. Neighbors reacted Wednesday to the verdict and expressed opinions on what the mother's punishment should be.

"I believe it was fair," said next-door neighbor Stephen Johnson. "My opinion came from hearing about the evidence, but I'm not saying she's 100 percent sane."

Patricia Salas lives across the street and often saw the children at play. "I don't think anybody's going to get away with killing five kids," she said. "It's not right trying to get her out with an insanity defense."

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