History | Crime

The Preventable Tragedy That Left Five Children Dead And Their Mother On Trial For Murder

To a great many people, the death of a child is one of the most tragic events that could possibly happen. While someone living to old age has meant they’ve at least been able to go out with a full life behind them, some children unfortunately only get to grace the Earth for a few years before their lives are tragically cut all too short. It’s a subject that saddens just about everybody.

Most parents are especially sensitive to the possibility, as they have to live every day with the fear that something could happen to their most precious treasures. Many parents I know can’t even watch a movie where a child dies without ending up a mess of tears, much less even entertain the thought of losing their own.

So, it stands to reason that it’s pretty unthinkable that a parent would ever want to willingly kill their own children, right? I mean, parents are supposed to be the first ones to throw their lives on the line to save their kids, what reason could they ever possibly have to take their lives instead?

Well, in 2001, we all got the shock of our lives when a mother was charged not just with murdering her five children, but with doing so in a way that was absolutely horrific. Her name was Andrea Yates, and her trial was one that the world will never forget. This is especially thanks to the fact that, in retrospect, the signs were all there.

The Beginning

Born in Hallsville, Texas in 1964, Yates was the youngest of five children, and by all accounts was pretty much the definition of the all-American student. She was her high school class valedictorian, captain of the swim team, and even an officer in the National Honor Society.

The Downward Spiral

However, she also had her first recorded brushes with mental illness as a teen too, something that would prove to come back throughout her life. She suffered from bulimia and clinical depression, and even described the desire to commit suicide to a friend at 17. These thoughts would ebb and flow even after her graduation from the University of Texas School of Nursing, and her marriage to her husband, Russell “Rusty” Yates.

Yates ended up having five children with her husband while they relocated between Texas and Florida several times, but trouble started to flare up after the birth of their fourth child, Luke.

Yates sunk into a depression and was once found “shaking and chewing her fingers” by her husband. She then attempted suicide by various means several times, all while begging for her husband to let her die. She was eventually committed to a hospital, where she was put on multiple antidepressants.

She continued to have breakdowns though, and was eventually diagnosed with postpartum psychosis, a more developed form of postpartum depression. Yates began seeing a therapist, who urged the couple not to have any more children as it could “guarantee future psychotic depression.” Their fifth child was conceived 7 weeks later.

Yates appeared to be stable until the death of her father in March of 2001, at which point she stopped taking her medications, mutilated herself, and began feverishly reading the Bible and extreme Christian newsletters. She was borderline catatonic at times, and once half-filled her bathtub only to not get in it. It was speculated that she intended to drown herself, but the true reason was far worse.

The Murders

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On June 20th, 2001, Rusty left for work against the advice of Yates’s therapist, who advised him to watch his wife around the clock. His mother, Dora Yates, had been scheduled by him to arrive an hour later to take over for her. In the space of that hour, she filled the tub and drowned all five children.

According to reports, “she started with [her youngest sons] John, Paul, and Luke, and then laid them in her bed. She then drowned [her daughter] Mary, whom she left floating in the tub. [Her eldest son] Noah came in and asked what was wrong with Mary. He then ran, but she soon caught and drowned him. She left him floating in the tub and laid Mary in John's arms in the bed. She then called the police repeatedly saying she needed an officer but would not say why. Then she called Rusty, telling him to come home right away.”

The Trials

Yates was arrested for the murders and admitted to a psychologist that she intentionally waited for Rusty to leave the house, knowing that he would try to stop her. Accusations immediately began to fly, pointing to potential fault on the part of her husband, her doctors, and even the radical forms of Christianity she had begun to follow. This lead to two of the biggest trials in Texas history.

In her first trial, her defense sought to get her an insanity plea, but in Texas, a defendant has to be able to prove that they could not determine right from wrong at the time of the crime in order for an insanity plea to pass. The court rejected the plea and found Yates guilty of murder. While the prosecution sought the death penalty, the court instead sentenced her to life imprisonment.

However, in 2005, the ruling was overturned when it was revealed that California psychiatrist and prosecution witness Dr. Park Dietz admitted he had given false testimony during the trial. He had compared Yates’s actions to an episode of Law and Order featuring a similar crime, only for it to ultimately be revealed that no such episode existed.

While the prosecution continued to argue that she was conscious enough of her actions to be able to discern right from wrong, and also that spousal revenge likely contributed to her decision, ultimately it was ruled that Yates was not guilty by reason of insanity. She was committed to a mental facility, and remains in confined treatment to this day.

The Aftermath

Andrea and Rusty Yates divorced in 2004, with the couple having become estranged since the murders. The case also highlighted the severity and dangers of postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis, with both medical experts and law enforcement having to take more precautions when these conditions are involved with a case.

Do you remember the trial? Can you believe it’s been 17 years?