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Thursday, January 06, 2005  

Law: Andrea Yates' conviction reversed

A Texas appeals court has reversed the murder convictions of Andrea Yates, the former nurse who took the lives of her five children in 2001. This a surprising turn of events, considering the record of indifference and malfeasance that characterizes the Texas criminal justice system. The reversal turns on a lie told by an expert witness for the prosecution.

The CBC News reports.

HOUSTON (AP) - Andrea Yates' murder convictions for drowning three of her children in a bathtub were overturned Thursday by an appeals court, which ruled that a prosecution witness' erroneous testimony about a non-existent TV episode could have been crucial.

Yates' lawyers had argued at a hearing last month before a three-judge panel of the First Court of Appeals in Houston that psychiatrist Park Dietz was wrong when he referred to an episode of the TV show Law & Order.

He said the show involved a woman found not guilty by reason of insanity for drowning her children. After jurors found Yates guilty, lawyers in the case and jurors learned no such episode existed.

"We conclude that there is a reasonable likelihood that Dr. Dietz's false testimony could have affected the judgment of the jury," the court ruled. "We further conclude that Dr. Dietz's false testimony affected the substantial rights of appellant."

The appellate ruling returns the case for a new trial, although prosecutors said they hoped to reverse Thursday's ruling.

Considering the kinds of abuses that regularly pass scrutiny with the Texas courts of criminal appeals, which consists of former prosecutors, this is a remarkable decision. The effect of Dietz' testimony was to give jurors the impression that Yates had killed the children believing she could escape responsibility by pretending to be insane, based on the non-existent episode of Law & Order. However, I would not have been surprised if the judges had dismissed that effect by saying the jurors might have ignored the false testimony. I expect that to be the district attorney's argument on appeal of this decision.

Is there really a light at the end of the tunnel for Andrea Yates? Probably not. It is foreseeable that a new trial will result in a new conviction. Texas leads the United States in both prison population and inmates on death row. Though Yates is not eligible for the death penalty, I doubt she will be treated with the mercy a person in her position deserves. My preference in situations such as this one is that people who are clearly psychotic when they commit crimes be either found not guilty by reason of insanity, or, guilty, but insane. The latter verdict would result in treatment in a secure facility for the criminally insane. However, few jurisdictions offer the option. Currently, Yates resides in a facility for mentally ill inmates, but she will likely be assigned to the general population eventually. Her life will be imperiled.

Reasonably related

According to the Justice Policy Institute, one in 20 Texans is under some kind of criminal justice system supervision, ranging from probation to prison.

• An innocent man prosecutors in Fort Worth sent to prison is free after 12 years. The Star-Telegram has his story.

8:45 PM