February 20, 2002 06:17 PM

Her ghastly “vision,” which is how she later described it to a doctor, came to her one day in 1994, shortly after the birth of her first child, Noah. The image was fleeting but unmistakable: a knife and then someone — she never said who — being stabbed. Rather than tell anyone about the episode, Andrea Yates tried to forget it. But the apparition, sometimes accompanied by voices telling her to “get a knife,” returned several times over the years.

Then one day last year, her attorney says, her demons took over. On the morning of June 20, Andrea’s husband, Rusty, received a call from her. “You have to come home,” was all she would tell him at first. And then, chillingly, “I hurt all five of the kids. I finally did it.” He arrived within minutes to find police swarming around the couple’s three-bedroom home in the Houston suburb of Clear Lake. An officer outside broke the awful news: Andrea had drowned their children — Noah, 7; John, 5; Paul, 3; Luke, 2; and Mary, 7 months- -i n the bathtub. In disbelief, Rusty raced to the back door, where he saw Andrea seated impassively on the living room couch, staring blankly ahead. “I was banging on the window,” recalls Rusty, who was not allowed in. ” ‘How could you do this?’ I screamed. But she just kept looking straight ahead.” She seemed to hear nothing. “I yelled again,” says Rusty, ” ‘I don’t understand. Why? Why? How could you do this?’ ”

Eight months later that plaintive question still hangs in the air as Yates’s trial for capital murder unfolds in a Houston courtroom. And it is clear that there will be no easy answer — if one emerges at all. The 37-year-old Yates, who pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and could face the death penalty if convicted, “had been thinking about killing her children for two years,” the state’s lead prosecutor, Joseph Owmby, told the jury in his opening argument on Feb. 18. But defense attorney George Parnham, who was hired by Yates’s family, depicted her as the victim of a devastating mental illness spurred in part by savage bouts of postpartum depression. Mentally unhinged after coming off Haldol, an antipsychotic drug, only two weeks earlier, Yates believed that drowning her children “was the right thing to do,” Parnham told jurors. “On June 20 the inevitable happened.”

If the jury of eight women and four men — seven of whom have children — finds Yates guilty of murder, they will then have to decide whether to condemn her to death or sentence her to life in prison with a possibility of parole in 40 years. If she is found not guilty by reason of insanity, she could still be committed to a mental hospital for life — or until she is deemed no longer dangerous to herself or society.

This stark choice has touched an especially raw nerve with the public. Many people have already condemned Yates — who sits impassively in court, rarely uttering a word to Parnham — as a heartless monster guilty of a crime so heinous it can never be forgiven. Yet there has also been a surprising surge of support for her — with Rusty, 37, his wife’s most outspoken champion. “Andrea loved those children,” Rusty, who has not been in the courtroom because he is scheduled to testify, told PEOPLE. “Her heart was good, but her mind was sick.”

Indeed, perhaps the most charged aspect of the case is the decision by the prosecution to seek the death penalty. To her defenders Yates is a good mother who was overwhelmed by emotional problems and the stress of bearing and raising five children with virtually no help. Those who have spoken on her behalf include TV host and dedicated adoptive mother Rosie O’Donnell, who herself has been treated for depression, and who has pleaded for sympathy for Yates, telling ABC News, “When you’ve been on the edge, you can understand what it’s like to go over.” Even in the Houston area, where support for capital punishment runs strong, there seems to be little sentiment in favor of executing Yates. A poll by the Houston Chronicle last November showed that only 19 percent of those surveyed wanted her to die, while 57 percent believed a life sentence was fair punishment.

Many in Yates’s camp, a loose coalition of individuals and advocacy groups, reject even that solution. “It’s a flagrant case of prosecuting a very sick person for being sick,” says Frances “Sissy” Farenthold, a Houston attorney and former state legislator. “The first indictment I would have is against the kind of mental health care she got. She’s a victim too.” Unlike Susan Smith, the notorious South Carolina mother who killed her two young sons in 1994, Yates made no attempt to hide her crime. “She didn’t try to cover it up,” says Deborah Bell, the president of Texas NOW. “She was psychotic. It’s a travesty for her to undergo a trial. “For a few, the Yates tragedy has come to represent something larger than itself. “Men become psychotic too,” says Diane Bossom, a neighbor of Yates’s and a former counselor. “But this was precipitated by postpartum depression and hormonal changes, so in that sense it is a women’s issue.”

But Owmby, an experienced prosecutor who has won a number of death-penalty cases, told jurors he would prove that Yates knew that drowning her children “was an illegal thing, that it was a sin, that it was wrong.” This is important, because in Texas, as in many states, statutes allow very little leeway for defendants to use the insanity defense. If the accused knows that he is committing a crime, he can be held fully accountable, regardless of mental illness that might have triggered the action. “If you know right from wrong, in Texas you’re legally sane,” says Sandra Guerra Thompson, a professor of criminal law at the University of Houston. And Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal suggests that the enormity of Yates’s crime demands the most severe punishment: “One of the things we look at is the impact of preventing other people from committing similar types of crimes.”

At Yates’s trial, which is expected to last three weeks, one of the key issues for the defense may be explaining why, if Andrea was so sick and so overwhelmed, the couple kept having more children. One former neighbor, Sylvia Cole, suspects the answer may not be entirely flattering to Rusty. “He was adamant that they were going to have six kids,”says Cole, 45. “She was meek and easygoing, so I’m not sure if it was a joint decision.” It was Rusty’s belief that “the woman should do all the child care,” Andrea’s brother, chemist Andrew Kennedy, 46, told PEOPLE. “Andrea was the one who did all the diaper changing and everything.” Still, says Kennedy, “she wanted to have those kids just as much as he did. So you just can’t blame Rusty.”

Certainly Rusty had long exuded considerable self-assurance. He and a younger brother, Randy, now 36, were raised in Hermitage, Tenn., a suburb of Nashville, where their father, Russell Sr., who died of a heart attack in 1981, worked as a salesman, while their mother, Dora, 63, taught school. At DuPont High School, Rusty lettered in football and graduated third in his class. He went on to Auburn University, where he further excelled in his studies, graduating in 1987 with highest honors and a degree in math. His academic record helped him get a job as a computer engineer at the Johnson Space Center. As a young bachelor in Houston, he didn’t date much, spending much of his time on his own. “Rusty did his own thing,” says friend Mike Ruiz, 44, who has worked with Yates for 12 years at NASA and once shared a house with him.

Andrea, too, was a high achiever. She grew up in Houston, the youngest of five children — Andrew, now 46; Brian, 45, a self-employed electrical worker; Patrick, 44, the manager of a shipping company in El Toro, Calif.; and Michelle, 39, a dialysis nurse in Georgia. As it turns out, three of Andrea’s siblings have been treated for depression. Their father, Andrew Kennedy, who had Alzheimer’s and died last March at age 83, taught high school auto mechanics and was a “disciplinarian,” Andrea later told a hospital staffer. He could be exceedingly demanding. “When she brought home a B, he asked why it wasn’t an A,” recalls Marlene Wark, 37, Andrea’s best friend in high school. Her mother, Karin, 72, a former department store manager who still lives in Houston, was “supportive, sensitive, caring and nurturing,” Andrea said in a hospital interview two years ago.

At Milby High School, Andrea graduated at the top of her class and was captain of the swim team. Those who knew her recall her as a perfectionist. “She had very high standards, for herself and others,” says Wark. Her mother recalls that Andrea had little social life, especially when it came to boys. “She never had a date, never went to a party,” says Karin. “She didn’t know how to dance or anything.”

Much the same pattern repeated itself in the nursing program at the University of Texas in Houston, where she worked several jobs in addition to her studies. After graduation she took a job as an oncology nurse at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. She met Rusty in 1989, when they lived in the same apartment complex in Houston. Andrea knocked on his door on the pretext of inquiring if he knew who had dented her car. She later admitted to him that she had seen him around and wanted to meet him. They went to the Olive Garden on their first date and held hands. They were married in April 1993. Wark recalls that talk at their wedding reception quickly turned to how many children they would have. At that point Andrea seemed ready for a large family. “She said they were going to use natural planning,” says Wark. “And she was open to as many or as few as they had.”

Their first child, Noah, arrived in February 1994, followed by John in December 1995 and Paul in September 1997. Despite her knife vision in 1994, outwardly everything seemed fine with Andrea, who quit working after Noah’s birth. As her other children were born, she became a model of efficiency. She homeschooled the kids, baked cakes, sewed costumes — and didn’t show any serious symptoms of depression.

Still, life was not easy. In the early years the family lived in cramped quarters, first in a small house, then in a camper, then in a converted Greyhound bus. Rusty thought the bus would be great for taking trips, but it only had about 350 sq. ft. of space. “Andrea was very accommodating with the kids,” he says. “She’d let them get out all the paints, all the Play-Doh, all the stuff. It is kind of stressful because it had to be cleaned up.”

According to Rusty, her serious mental problems only became apparent after the birth of their fourth son, Luke, in February of 1999. Four months later, on June 16, Rusty took Andrea and the kids from the bus and to her mother’s home after Andrea became agitated and withdrawn; in a later interview she expressed feeling “overwhelming anxiety and sadness.” The next day her mother found her passed out on a bed after taking 40 or 50 tablets of her father’s antidepressant Trazodone. “She states she just wanted to sleep forever,” her chart from Methodist Hospital read. “Doesn’t want to die, but wants the misery to go away.” Andrea spent six days at the hospital, during which she participated in group therapy sessions. She was also given the antidepressant Zoloft for what was diagnosed by her doctor as a “major depressive disorder” probably triggered by the recent birth of her son.

Over the next month at home, however, her condition did not improve much. For one thing she refused to take her medication, out of a general aversion to taking any pill she didn’t think she needed. At times she became so nervous and upset she scratched several bald spots onto her scalp. On the evening of July 21, 1999, Rusty found her in the bathroom holding a steak knife to her throat. “Let me do it,” she said, before he wrestled the knife away. She was taken to Memorial Spring Shadows Glen, a private psychiatric facility, in a virtually catatonic state. That’s where she finally told doctors that she was hearing voices and having visions involving a knife. “I had a fear I would hurt somebody,” she told a psychologist. “I thought it better to end my own life and prevent it.” What seemed to snap her out of her state was a shot of Haldol, a powerful antipsychotic drug. “In a day she was on her feet,” says Rusty. She also began taking antidepressants Wellbutrin and Effexor.

Andrea spent three weeks at Spring Shadows Glen. Under the medications, she showed progress. Even so, staffers were stunned to learn that she and Rusty still were not averse to having more children. “Apparently patient and husband plan to have as many babies as nature will allow!” read one astonished notation on her chart. “This will surely guarantee future psychotic depression.” So why didn’t Rusty, seeing his wife’s suffering, put his foot down and insist they stop at four kids? To begin with, he maintains, no one at the facility ever mentioned to him that Andrea had violent fantasies and had voiced fears of harming others (the clinic declines comment). Nor, he says, had she told him. He also says he assumed that if she had problems with mental illness after any subsequent kids she could get another round of Haldol to make her well again. “We counted each child as a blessing, not a burden,” he says. “(If she got depressed again) there would be the same symptoms and she would get the same treatment.” He knows now it’s not that simple. “I’ve since learned that depression is worse with subsequent children,” he says.

— BILL HEWITT
— BOB STEWART and GABRIELLE COSGRIFF in Houston

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