Houston Chronicle

Aug. 12, 2001, 6:14PM

Life, Death Issues: Gag order or not, some Yates questions must await trial

Houston Chronicle

Just about everyone familiar with the case against Andrea Pia Yates, the Houston-area mother accused of drowning her five children, has concocted a theory about what prompted her actions and what punishment she should receive. Many will find it appropriate that Harris County prosecutors have decided to preserve their option of seeking the death penalty against Yates. Others are more inclined to believe a woman who by all accounts suffers some form of mental illness does not deserve to die on death row.

The fact is, just about all such conclusions at this point necessarily must be based on speculation. And the public knows even less than it might because of a shortsighted and First Amendment-abridging gag order placed by state District Judge Belinda Hill. Yates' right to a fair trial must be protected, but in the absence of any indication that information provided by news outlets would hinder a just proceeding, Hill would have served the public better to have, if anything, placed more thoughtful and reasonable restrictions on pre-trial publicity rather than muzzling participants completely.

At some point, a jury will decide if Yates is competent to stand trial, much less receive the death penalty that some people believe she so richly deserves. The 37-year-old has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to two charges of capital murder in the deaths June 20 of three of her children. If Yates is found competent to stand trial, chief prosecutor Chuck Rosenthal has left the door open for a jury to decide whether she is to die by lethal injection or receive a life sentence. It will be interesting to see whether he can overcome the required hurdle of convincing a jury panel that a mother of five closely spaced children who suffered from postpartum depression or psychosis or some other psychiatric problem would be a continuing threat to society.

Some hold the opinion that prosecutors do not really want to see Andrea Yates sent to death row, but are more interested in impaneling tough-minded jurors who would be less sympathetic to the insanity defense Yates' lawyers plan to mount.

This tragedy raises a host of questions about the role mental illness might play in the commission of crimes and about how such issues should be dealt with within the criminal justice system. But the answers to the vast majority of those questions will have to await Yates' trial and a full examination of the evidence.

Copyright 2001 Houston Chronicle