10 years later: The legacy of Andrea Yates' crime

June 20, 2011 8:14:10 PM PDT
It's been 10 years since Andrea Yates drowned her five children in the bathtub of her Clear Lake home. Since then, there have been two trials, plenty of opinions and some changes to how the mentally ill are treated both in and out of a courtroom.

George Parnham is perhaps the man who now knows Andrea Yates best.

"Long ago, I crossed the professional line," Parnham said.

He was her criminal defense attorney, and is now like family.

"I treat her as if she were a child of mine," he said.

Since she still turns down interviews, Parnham is the closest you'll get to the now 46-year-old woman.

Her address is at Kerrville State Hospital -- a low-security facility.

"There are no wires. There are no fences," Parnham said.

Her day consists of group and individual therapy sessions and a regimented schedule, although in many ways she's like any woman of her age.

"She wears makeup, wears blue jeans, she wears earrings when she wants to," Parnham said.

Her occupation: artist.

"She devises little arts and crafts and sells them anonymously at trade shows," Parnham said.

Ten years ago, she was a mother with a full house, and she was severely ill.

Her crime shocked the nation.

Moments after her then-husband Russell Yates left for work, Andrea drowned each of her five children in five separate acts.

The oldest was seven-year-old Noah. The youngest was Mary, just six months old.

It took less than an hour. She then calmly called 9-1-1.

Very quickly, we heard about Andrea's previous suicide attempts, hospital stays, medications, postpartum depression and psychosis -- and her motive.

"Bottom line [is] she thought she was saving their souls," Parnham said.

Despite all of it, the state still sought prosecution.

"Under the law and the evidence in that case, it was shown that Andrea Yates knew her conduct was wrong, and it's OK for you to say that's the wrong standard to apply, but that is the standard in Texas and that was the law we were applying," attorney Joe Owmby said.

Owmby was the lead prosecutor.

"It's hard to believe it's been 10 years," he said.

Owmby helped convince a jury to convict.

Andrea was spared the death penalty, but sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 40 years.

Four years later, it would all change.

"I respect, I still think it's the wrong decision," Owmby said.

Based on expert testimony deemed false, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals reversed Andrea's conviction and ordered a new trial.

That jury found her not guilty by reason of insanity, and she was committed to a state mental hospital.

"If it were not for the Andrea Yates case, we would not have had the needed attention to these issues," said Betsy Schwartz with Mental Health America of Greater Houston.

Today, both sides agree the Yates children's tragic deaths have brought about some good.

"Mary would be coming up on her 11th birthday," Schwartz said. "Since that time, a huge amount of progress has been made."

With both Andrea and Rusty's blessings, Parnham partnered with Mental Health America of Greater Houston to create the Yates Children Memorial Fund, a driving force behind a brochure focused on postpartum depression prevention that has been distributed to more than a half a million moms.

"We don't want moms to fear they're going to harm their children. Just because you're having PPD does not mean you're going to harm your child," Schwartz said.

We know Andrea has contributed to her children's fund with money she's made from selling her art.

Parnham says she thinks about them every day, and both yearns for and fears a time when she is no longer confined. He recognizes that, for some, that notion will be hard to take.

In November, she's up for re-evaluation for release to an outpatient facility. Parnham's hope is that she gets to move into a residential facility. He's certain her potential release will not come without protest and without concerns for her safety.

"She's very afraid of that," he said.

Meanwhile, she's still at the Kerville facility, where she gets few visitors including Parnham, a couple of old friends and her ex-husband Rusty also visit. Though he's remarried with a three-year-old son and a teenage stepson, we've learned he still stays connected through visits.

Andrea Yates declined to be interviewed for the piece. Rusty didn't return our calls.

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