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AMERICAN MORNING WITH PAULA ZAHN

Interview of Juana Leija, Dick DeGuerin

Aired March 14, 2002 - 09:08   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Life or death for Andrea Yates? That is the question facing jurors. As Ed Lavandera just reported, the sentencing phase of her murder trial begins this morning, and in Houston, the Yates case is reminiscent of another case there 15 years ago, but one with a very different ending. In 1987, Juana Leija, tried to drown her seven children, and actually killed two of them.

Leija admitted her guilt, but her lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, successfully negotiated a plea bargain and she served no jail time. Leija was sentenced to 10 years probation and ordered to receive psychiatric treatment. Today, she is out of the hospital, a free woman.

Why did Andrea Yates' case turn out so differently? Well, attorney Dick DeGuerin and Juana Leija join us now from Houston.

Good morning to both of you. Thank you very much for being with us.

JUANA LEIJA, FORMER DEFENDANT: Good morning.

DICK DEGUERIN, DEFENSE ATTORNEY: Thank you, Paula.

ZAHN: So, Juana, I know a lot of people have compared Andrea Yates' case to yours, because of some of the similarities. What was your reaction when you heard that Andrea Yates was found guilty?

LEIJA: I was very sad and upset about her and her family.

ZAHN: You didn't think it was going to turn out that way?

LEIJA: No, never.

ZAHN: What do you think should happen to Andrea Yates now?

LEIJA: Well, I don't know much about law, but the only thing I can say is, I hope that she won't get the death penalty. I hope that they -- that she get, you know -- if they send her to jail, at least, she's going to receive treatment for her illness, and she's going to have a chance to see the rest of her family.

ZAHN: With Dick's help, you actually got treatment, and I understand you're feeling a lot better. What kind of a difference has -- have the drugs and the treatment options made in your life? LEIJA: A big difference, very big difference, because, without the treatment, I was -- I was very sick in my mind, and after I got the treatment, I was able to function almost at a normal level, and it really has changed my life, having my treatments.

ZAHN: And now that you are well, and you have been in a stable relationship for a number of years, what goes through your mind when you think back of what happened to you and your children?

LEIJA: Well, I tell you the truth, I don't think much about it. I know I was very sick at that time. I know what I have done is wrong. I know now, and I found out later, after the incident that at that time, I couldn't even think I was wrong.

ZAHN: Dick, as we hear Juana tell her story, everybody pretty much understands, no matter what happens to Andrea Yates, she will, at a minimum, be sitting in prison for 15 years, and while the cases are identical, there are a number of similarities here. Why did Andrea Yates' case turn out so differently than your client's?

DEGUERIN: There is a different attitude abroad (ph) in the country now, and it seems to be a much more harsh and cruel and unforgiving attitude. I'm very disheartened by what has happened here, but I think it points up a very deficient law in Texas on insanity. We treat -- we should treat people who are sick as if they are sick, and not as if they are criminals.

ZAHN: Do you think part of the problem was that Andrea Yates' team did not enter in any kind of plea bargain, because that's exactly what you did with Juana.

DEGUERIN: Well, we did, and we had a courageous judge, not that Judge Hill is not courageous at all, but we had a courageous judge that took it on his shoulders to see to it that she was put on probation. The prosecution gave mere lip service to opposing that at the time, and perhaps there should have been some negotiations in this case. But still, you have to look at the prosecution. The prosecution took this case as a capital case. The have prosecuted it all the way, and they are going to try to kill Andrea Yates today. It just is not right. It's wrong. Just because you have nuclear weaponry, as the United States does, doesn't mean we ought to use the atomic bomb every time we get in an argument. Just because they can prosecute for capital murder, doesn't mean that they should. This is case where woman is very, very sick. Everybody agrees about that.

ZAHN: Well, let me ask you this, based on how swiftly the jury returned its verdict, that happened in less than four hours, what does that tell you about the mindset they may have going into this process today, and the sentencing phase?

DEGUERIN: It's very confusing. Either they've already made up their mind that they are going to send her to prison, and they're just -- they're through the case, or they were swayed by the prosecution's emotional argument, just remembering the five dead babies, and that was their mantra all through this: five dead children. They brought the pictures back, and tried to get the jury to think about emotions rather than the intellectual evidence of her illness.

ZAHN: And in closing, Juana, we mentioned that you were sentenced to 10 years probation, and you say today, now that you're being treated, you understand what you did was wrong in drowning two of your children, that you didn't understand that at the time. What should jurors think about today when they're deciding Andrea Yates' fate?

LEIJA: Well, I hope they decide to look at her as what she is. She is a sick person. She is sick in her mind. At the time, she didn't know what she was doing.

ZAHN: Final thought from you, Dick?

DEGUERIN: I think Juana speaks volumes when she says that. She -- we've got to change our laws so that we recognize this severe mental illness, and not treat people as if they're evil. That's not what this case is about.

ZAHN: All right. Well, Dick DeGuerin, we appreciate your dropping by, and Juana Leija, appreciate your time as well.

DEGUERIN: Thank you, Paula.

ZAHN: Take care.

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