Andrea Yates’ conviction has been thrown out by the Texas First Court of Appeals.
The three-member appeals court granted Yates’ motion to have her conviction reversed because the state’s expert psychiatric witness testified that Yates had patterned her actions after a Law & Order television episode that never existed. In ordering a new trial, the appellate court said the trial judge erred in not granting a mistrial once it was learned that testimony of Dr. Park Dietz was false.
Prosecutors plan to appeal the ruling, but Yates’ family and attorney were jubilant this morning.
“It’s unbelievable,” defense attorney George Parnham said. “I’m stunned, unbelievably happy.”
During her 2002 trial in the Houston courtroom of State District Judge Belinda Hill, Yates’ attorneys argued she was unable to discern that difference when she filled up the family’s bathtub and drowned her children one by one, but the Harris County jury deliberated just 3-1/2 hours before convicting her of drowning three of her children. She was not tried in the deaths of her other two children.
Yates’ attorneys vowed at the trial’s end that they would appeal the case because of the testimony of Dietz, who told the jury he had served as a consultant on an episode of the television drama Law & Order in which a woman drowned her children in the bathtub and was judged insane. He testified the show aired shortly before Yates drowned her own children.
Prosecutors referred to Dietz’s testimony in his closing arguments of the trial’s guilt or innocence phase, noting that Yates regularly watched the show and that she had alluded to finding “a way out” when Dietz interviewed her in the Harris County Jail after the drownings.
But right after Yates’ conviction, defense attorneys discovered no such episode was produced. As a result, both sides agreed to tell jurors who’d moved on to consider Yates’ punishment that Dietz had erred in his testimony and to disregard that portion of his account.
Dietz later said he had confused the show with others and wrote a letter to prosecutors, saying, “I do not believe that watching Law & Order played any causal role in Mrs. Yates’ drowning of her children.”
Writing for the appeals court, Justice Sam Nuchia agreed the state hadn’t knowingly used perjured testimony but expressed concern that the jury could have been prejudiced when weighing Yates’ guilt.
“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.”
That’s exactly right. The prosecution cannot be allowed to gain from the error of its expert witness. Honest mistake it may have been, but it still damaged the defense, and in a capital murder trial especially, that’s too big a burden. Calling a do-over is the only result that speaks to justice. Maybe this time around, the prosecution will agree that what Andrea Yates needs is treatment, not punishment.
Via Ginger, who sums it all up: “For once, a criminal appeal in Texas has shocked me the right way.”