03/25/2002 at 01:00 AM EST
For months she had inspired a searing national debate over where the line should be drawn between mental illness and culpability. Yet it took the eight women and four men sitting in judgment of Andrea Yates only three hours and 40 minutes to announce their verdict: guilty of capital murder. Now the question is how long Yates, 37, who drowned her five small children in a bathtub last June, will have to contemplate the enormity of her crime. With their decision on March 12, the jury set to work choosing the punishment: either life in prison or death by lethal injection.
During three weeks of testimony, the defense attempted to portray Yates as psychotic, pointing to the fact that she had twice attempted suicide and had been hospitalized four times for her mental problems in the two years before the killings. The rejection of this defense was a crushing blow to Yates's supporters, many of them feminists who saw her as a troubled mother being unfairly persecuted. "This whole trial has been a travesty," says Deborah Bell, president of Texas National Organization for Women.
Prosecutors didn't deny that Yates was disturbed. But they argued that she knew right from wrong, the only standard of sanity under Texas law, and that she was motivated by a desire to free herself from the crushing burdens of her family life, which included husband Rusty, whom the prosecutors depicted as intensely controlling. As evidence of her being aware of the consequences of her actions, they pointed to the fact that she had waited until Rusty had gone to work before drowning the kids, who ranged in age from 7 months to 7 years. As prosecutor Kaylynn Williford put it in her closing argument: "She made the choice to fill the tub. She made the choice to kill these children."