Who is Andrea Yates? A Short Story About Insanity

138 Pages Posted: 8 Oct 2003


This article examines in detail the different stories behind the Andrea Yates death penalty case - the defense's, the prosecution's, and the explanation that Yates herself provided. The jury did not accept the defense's story that Yates was insane and thought she was under Satan's influence at the time she drowned her five children in the bathtub. Rather, the jury convicted Yates and sentenced her to life in prison based on the prosecution's story that Yates was sane and acting intentionally when she killed her children, even though she was mentally ill. Yates herself fueled the prosecution's account and, of course, to her detriment. She felt that she had sinned and that she deserved to die.

The most persuasive storyteller of them all, however, was Park Dietz, the prosecution's star expert witness and the focus of this article. Despite his reputation for emphasizing "facts" and his ability to offer a much simpler landscape of Yates' mental state, this article contends that Dietz's level of speculation was troubling. There was little, if any, empirical basis for his conclusions, and his sweeping conjecture spotlighted his lack of expertise in postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis. Although Dietz's version of "Who is Andrea Yates?" was convincing to the jury, a thorough analysis of his trial testimony suggests that it is difficult to discern how much reality was behind it.

This article's evaluation of the Andrea Yates case makes no claim to have the "right" story, whatever that is. Based on the limited amount of information yet available on the case, it had other goals. Most particularly, the discussion accentuates the powerful influence of expert testimony regardless of the questionable nature of its content.

Suggested Citation

Denno, Deborah W., Who is Andrea Yates? A Short Story About Insanity. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=452040 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.452040

Deborah W. Denno (Contact Author)

Fordham University School of Law ( email )

Fordham University School of Law
150 West 62nd Street
New York, NY 10023
United States
212-636-6868 (Phone)
212-636-6899 (Fax)

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