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Do New 911 Tapes Help Andrea Yates Defense?

Aired December 12, 2001 - 08:35   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Infanticide, one of the most horrifying crimes, a parent taking the life of a child. The nation was shocked this past June when a Houston housewife was charged with drowning her five children one by one in a bathtub. Authorities have now released a tape of the 911 call Andrea Yates made on that tragic June morning.

Our Ed Lavandera has the story.



OPERATOR: What's your name?

ANDREA YATES: Andrea Yates.


ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With no emotion, Andrea Yates called 911, right after drowning her five children. In the brief phone call, she never hinted at what had just happened in the family's suburban Houston home.


OPERATOR: What's the problem?

YATES: I just need them to come?

OPERATOR: Is your husband there?


OPERATOR: Well, what's the problem?

YATES: I need them to come.

OPERATOR: I need to know why we're coming ma'am. s he there standing next to you.

YATES: Pardon me?

OPERATOR: Are you having a disturbance? Are you ill, or what?


LAVANDERA: It's been almost six months since police charged Andrea Yates with capital murder. Now we're able to hear what she sounded like on that summer morning when the Yates' family changed forever.


OPERATOR: Are you having a disturbance? Are you ill or what?

YATES: Yes, I'm ill.

OPERATOR: Do you need an ambulance?

YATES: No, I need a police officer. Yes, send an ambulance.

OPERATOR: What's the problem. Is someone burglarizing your house? I mean, what is it?


LAVANDERA: After hanging up with 911, Andrea also called her husband Russell. He was just starting another workday as a computer engineer at NASA. To this day, he still supports his wife. Andrea Yates has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. Mr. Yates says the woman who killed their five children isn't the loving mother and wife he knows.

(on camera): In September, a jury ruled Andrea Yates is competent to stand trial. She's still being held in the psychiatric unit of a Houston jail, and that's where she'll be until her capital murder trial starts on January 7th. Meanwhile, prosecutors still plan on seeking the death penalty.

Ed Lavandera, CNN, Dallas


ZAHN: So do the chilling 911 tapes help Andrea Yates' insanity defense?

Joining us now to Sound Off, from New York, Jeannine Pirro, the Westchester County District Attorney.

Good morning, Jeannine.

and from Massachusetts, criminal defense attorney Alan Dershowitz, author of "Letters to a Young Lawyer."

Good to see you as well, Alan.

All right, Jeannine, I'm going to start with you this morning. Now that you'd had a chance to listen to this 911 tape, do you think it bolsters Andrea Yates insanity defense?

JEANNINE PIRRO, WESTCHESTER CO. DISTRICT ATTORNEY: I think just the opposite. I think that the defendant in the 911 tape sounds like she has a memory of what happened. She's clear. She's coherent. It appears that sees not in a fugue state. She says that she needs the police. It almost a recognition that she knows that what she's done is wrong.

And I think if anything, the 911 tapes work against her insanity defense, because she's sounds far from crazy on those tapes.

ZAHN: Alan, what did you hear when you listened to those tapes?

ALAN DERSHOWITZ, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Well, I heard a woman calling the police to immediately admit her, crime although she can't bring herself quite to admit it. One of the standard criteria for an insanity defense is, would the defendant have committed this crime with a policemen at his or her elbow? So this is not a Mafia hitman. This is not a case for the death penalty. This is a case, a tragic case, of a woman who clearly has some mental illness. She's in the psychiatric word of a hospital. Whether she qualifies for full and complete exculpatory insanity defense, we have to hear the doctors. But whether or not this is one of those rare case where multiple infanticide will result in the death penalty. It almost never does result in the death penalty. I would think her mental illness is certainly a mitigating factor.

ZAHN: Is it a mitigating factor, Jeannine?

PIRRO: Well, you know, I think that to say that a Mafia hit person is more a criminal than a woman who kills five of her own children methodically one by one and chasing a 7-year-old and then calling her husband, calling the police to say what she's done is wrong, I think is to make light of what happened here.

You have a case of woman who clearly knew what she was doing based upon the circumstances before, during and after the event. She made sure that her husband had gone to work before she did this. She called the police to let them know she had done it. And this was not a moment of madness; this is a scenario where five children are being murdered by their own mother. So the question of the death penalty is one that the jury should decide here.

But I think it's important, Paula, that we make clear that mental illness or post-partum depression is not the same as legal insanity, which essentially absolves an individual from responsibility.

All right, Alan, you heard what Jeannine is saying. Basically she thinks this was premeditated.

DERSHOWITZ: It may have very well been premeditated. Many mentally ill people obsess and brood. For example, I don't know whether this is a fact here, but there are people who think that the voice of God has told them to kill, that their kids are the devil. There are all kinds of paranoid schizophrenic motivations for killing, which manifest themselves in clearly carried out schemes that are compulsively administered. Just because it has premeditation and intention, doesn't mean it's not the product of mental illness or insanity. Jeannine is right, of course, that mental illness does not equate to insanity. We're going to have to hear from experts. When the psychiatrists weighing in, we'll listen and hear whether she has a history of mental illness, whether she can be diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, and then we'll see whether she should be exculpated.

I'm not one who necessarily believes mental illness excuses everything. This is a woman who is, to some degree, responsible. But responsibility should be calibrated on a scale, and this is not a Mafia hit case, this not the kind of premeditation or motivated killing. When you kill you're own children, there's something very wrong with you, and the law should recognize that.

PIRRO: You know what, Alan, I agree with you, this is worse than a Mafia killing. This is a mother who has the trust of her children who kills them.

And you know what, the bottom line in this case, is it's about whether or not this mother knew that what she did was wrong, and the facts leading up to, during and after the incident I think make perfectly clear.

And by the post-partum depression, although it may by subcategory of a mental illness, there are tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of women who have babies who suffer from it. You're not necessarily saying that there's a correlation between post-partum depression and a proneness to violence. That's not reality.

DERSHOWITZ: Jeannine, you know, I wrote a book called "The Abuse Excuse," where I rail against these kinds of fake defenses.

But I do believe in the insanity defense, if you have a clear history of psychiatric illness, and although the woman knows what she is doing. She knew she was killing her kids, there's no question about that.

PIRRO: That's the question.

DERSHOWITZ: That's one of the questions. The other is whether she was compulsively motivated in a way that she could not control herself. And the fact that she calls police and immediately admits it, it seems to me, is not an aggravating and mitigating factor. And I think for you to say that it's worse than a Mafia hit is to makes light of calculated-to-profit killing which is the paradigm, along with terrorism, for the death penalty. This is a case for serious punishment, along with a little bit of compassion.

ZAHN: Alan, I want to move both on to a different subject, and that is Russell Yates had broken a court-ordered gag order, and he has said that his wife's doctor should bear responsibility for these killing because she wasn't on the right medication at the time.

DERSHOWITZ: I don't think that kind of spreading of the excuse to doctors and other people. She is responsible. I don't know what moral culpability he may have. By the way, the gag order itself is clearly unconstitutional. There is no way that his making statements would have the kind of impact on the fairness of a jury verdict, which empowers the court in extraordinarily rare occasions to impose gag restrictions prior restraint on the First Amendment.

ZAHN: But back to issue of the doctor's responsibility here.


ZAHN: The husband has laid out the fact that she had been medicated many times, Jeannine, for post-partum depression.

PIRRO: Right.

ZAHN: What if he had her on the wrong medicine? Should he held accountable for anything?

PIRRO: You know, it's the old abuse excuse. We've got to lay criminal responsible where it belongs, and there is only one person who is charged with killing these kids, taking them one by one. But you know, the abuse excuse and the blaming of someone else is so typical in our society today. Are we saying now that as we advance medically, that we should know be more aware of people who may or may not kill? You're dealing with a nurse here who was the valedictorian of her high school, who practiced -- who was a nurse for eight years. You're dealing with a bright woman, who was married to an engineer, who waited for her husband to leave, who was fed up with the fact that she had kids and was overwhelmed with them.

I mean, this is the age-old issue of, why do woman or mothers kill their children? And To equate it with insanity or a doctor who didn't have her on the right meds is ridiculous. We've got to deal the person who committed the crime and take from there.

DERSHOWITZ: That I agree.

ZAHN: You get the last word, Alan. I'm going to give you about 15 seconds.

DERSHOWITZ: On that one, I agree completely. This is not the doctor's fault; this is her fault. The question is, how much fault does she have? On a scale of 1-10, this not a 10, even though killed five children. Compassion coupled with punishment is what I think required, but not the death penalty.

ZAHN: Alan Dershowitz, Jeannine Pirro, good to have both of you with us for our "Sound Off" segment. Take care.




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