MAURICE CHAMMAH:June 28th, at the office of George Parnham in Houston, Texas. Myself, Maurice Chammah is doing the interview and Kalli Henderson is doing the videography. So, I guess, Mr. Parnham, if you’d like to begin by telling us about generally your background?
GEORGE PARNHAM: Sure. I began life many years ago. There was no lawyer in my family, much less a person who graduated from college, with the exception of my mother’s brother who became a schoolteacher. I left home when I was thirteen and went to the Catholic seminary to study to be a Catholic priest.
I stayed there approximately five and half to six years, left when I was nineteen, moved to New Orleans and started working in New Orleans as a shoe salesman, a ladies shoe salesman, which is responsible for all the hair that is gray in my head, and then I sold men’s shirts at Maison Blanche and decided that I needed to go back to school.
I borrowed some money and went to Loyola University in New Orleans, got an undergraduate degree, got a commission in the Army, went to law school, went to University of Texas in ’63, dropped out in ’64, took my Army commission, and was in the service for two years.
I left the service active duty and went into the reserves and got a job teaching school in San Bernardino, California. I went to night law school in Loyola Los Angeles. I quit teaching high school after two years, packed up a U-Haul and went back to University of Texas, and finished there, and started practicing law in ’69.
In those days you could practice law without having a law degree if you had so many hours of law school. But then after I started practicing in ’69, September specifically, I went back to University of Texas and finished in January of ’70.
I went to work for a firm in Dallas, Grand Prairie actually, Pettigrew and Buckley, left them at the end of the year and decided that I wanted to come to Houston just because of the reputation of the defense bar here. I knew I wanted to be a criminal lawyer and we had some great names in Houston.
It probably rivals, if not surpasses, any town or city in this country. Percy Foreman, Racehorse Haynes, people that are legends. So I came to Houston and started my practice on my own, and I’ve been here ever since.
CHAMMAH:And when you started, did you sort of work your way up in the kinds of criminal cases you would take?
PARNHAM:Yeah, I would probably say that there’s a graduation of the types of cases that would walk in my door. I remember starting out, getting a referral, my first retained case was from a lawyer that I knew from University of Texas, and he referred a C.P.A. to me.
I had no office, but I borrowed somebody’s office, and I went out and bought a name plate, stuck it on the door, my client comes in to interview, I represented him successfully, and I don’t know if I would do this again, but when the interview was over of course I’d take the name plate off the door and go on. It’s kind of a little, well, I had to have a place to interview him and I wanted some name identification.
But since then I have, over the span of forty-two years, I’ve represented police officers, judges, lawyers, the everyman, everyday man and woman off the street, legislators, and have run the gambit of criminal defense. And I’ve practiced in – I was counting the other day – probably twenty-three different states in both state and federal courts.
I’ve enjoyed the practice and hopefully will continue to practice for another lengthy period of time. Health is good, you know, I think my mind is good, but sometimes we have a way of deceiving ourselves, right?
CHAMMAH: So what led, you were graduating cases sort of more and more, bigger and bigger cases it sounds like, and then what led into the capital cases that were larger, I mean at what point did that start to come?
PARNHAM: The first capital case that I handled was a case in Austin, and my clients were charged with aggravated bank robbery, or aggravated robbery, and back in those days the death penalty could be sought for aggravated robbery. Although no one was killed, it was a large shoot-out with the Texas Department of Public Safety and my clients were eventually caught, and the State was seeking the death penalty because D.P.S. officers were involved. Marshall Henderson and Eugene Demuth.
Interesting I remember the names of the people that were prominent in my progression through the ranks. That was very early on, I’d say the early ‘seventies.
There’s something about representing someone whose life rests literally in your hands and in your mouth that brings about a certain amount of creativity, brings about a certain amount of innate energy, regardless of what the offense is that lead them to sit beside you at the counsel table in front of a jury.
I don’t watch lawyer shows, but you get a certain hardness, if you will, to the possible inevitability that your client will end up on death row. But I still engage in that type of practice when it comes through the door. I don’t turn it away because it’s a capital case or a particularly gruesome fact situation.
In 2001, Andrea Yates drowned her five children and was selected by the State to be executed. I was retained the day after it happened, and was concerned about, prior to being retained, getting called to represent a woman who had taken the lives not only of one, but five people, human beings, that she had delivered into this world. For the first time I dreaded getting a call that would put me in the position of defending Andrea.
I got a call from a civil lawyer, His name is John O’Sullivan. I had helped John O’Sullivan in a case a few years before in a murder case down in Angleton, Texas. I had not heard from John, so when I got the call I knew John’s office down in the Clearlake area, and the message on the machine, or on the answering service was, “It’s an emergency,” and [snaps fingers], I knew. I just knew that that, what the emergency was.
All day long I had heard about this monster mom who had drowned her kids. People were volunteering to execute her, they wanted to drown her and save the taxpayers the appellate process. They were convinced that she would be executed. So I agreed to meet with John, and I called him back, and agreed to meet with John and Mrs. Kennedy, Andrea’s mom, and her two brothers in my office the next morning at seven thirty, which was upstairs on the eighth floor.
I was retained with the last money that I’d probably ever see in this case, and went down to file a notice with the court that I was representing Andrea – she had a court appointed lawyer – then I went to the jail to see her. I rounded the corner.
That summer was the summer of a gigantic flood in Houston and our new courthouse, which we were proud of, was to have opened that following Monday, and it never opened for a solid year. The flood had literally moved the courthouse, twenty-two stories tall or twenty-one, off of its foundation. So we were trying cases in warehouses on the bayou.
That particular day they had moved the psychiatric unit in the jail where Andrea was housed to a different jail, and she was on the third floor of what is known as the M.H.M.R.A. unit, mental health and mental retardation, and she was intermingled with individuals that were incarcerated that were not mentally ill or did not have evident signs of mental illness, which led to a lot of confusion.The M.H.M.R.A. staff, they were there, and the Sheriff’s department staff, also was there.
It should have been M.H.M.R.A. alone handling patients, right?
PARNHAM:Am I doing okay?
CHAMMAH: Oh, this is great.
PARNHAM: Am I doing too much?
CHAMMAH: No, this is fascinating, this is great.
PARNHAM: Okay, I got to the third floor and before I went into the jail I rounded the corner, you had to cross a bridge over the bayou to get to the jail, and when I rounded the corner to get to the jail I’d never see so many satellite dish trucks in my life. The streets were just jammed.
The word had gotten out across the city, and state, and nationally, and even internationally. There were individuals making inquiries. I found out before I got to see Andrea that she had been housed in an isolation — for her own protection — cell and that because of the flood there were no suicide blankets.
Now a suicide blanket is a paper dress. Obviously the concern being if she’s dressed in cloth, then she would have the ability, once she realized what had happened, to hurt herself. She was housed without any dress at all. She was totally nude, and there was a deputy sheriff who took the witness stand during the first and second trials that saw it to be his duty to look in on Andrea Yates every fifteen minutes.
Now suicide watch equates into looking at the person you’re in charge of every fifteen minutes to make certain that person isn’t committing suicide, right? Or taking any action that would reflect an intent to harm oneself.
Doctor Ferguson, who was her psychiatrist on call by M.H.M.R.A., when she found out about that she became righteously furious, and when I found out about it I shared those sentiments. The fact that M.H.M.R.A., the female, the people with M.H.M.R.A. were already checking her every fifteen minutes and this jerk took it upon himself to look in on her.
Andrea didn’t know, she’s huddled in the corner, she’s got her hair matted, she’s still in the throes of delusion, has no idea what’s going on. Ferguson immediately did two things. She ordered from shops in town suicide blankets, and she ordered Ativan for her.
I saw Andrea before the initial assessment by Ferguson and her team of workers, mental health care workers. Andrea came into the attorney-client cell-booth and basically stared, I’ll never forget it, she had circles under her eyes, she had no pupils, her hair was just a disaster, she was mumbling. I introduced myself.
There was a little aluminum speakeasy thing that you can talk through then you put your ear down, you know. No telephone to pick up. I told Andrea what I was doing, that I was her lawyer. She said very few things to me. I needed her to sign a HIPAA release form to get her mental health records because I had been told by Ferguson that she’d been able to find out that she had a history of mental illness.
Been hospitalized four times, two suicide attempts, on and off of anti-psychotic medication, post-partum psychotic after the birth of Luke. We find these things out.
So Andrea’s sitting there, Luke is child number four, Andrea’s sitting there and she starts to argue with me. She doesn’t want a lawyer, doesn’t know why she needs to have a lawyer, doesn’t really want me.
She doesn’t want a trial, she wants to be executed, she wants to go immediately to death row and be executed by the governor. I find out that she wants to be executed by the governor so that, according to scripture, which she was very fond of quoting, “Only the ruler can slay the evil one.”
Well, with Andrea, Andrea believed in her psychotic, delusional state that the singular Satan lived within her, and although this comes later and not in the initial interview, but she also believed that she was a bad mother and that Satan was causing her children to become bad to the point that they were going to Hell if she didn’t terminate their innocent lives before Satan had the chance to pull them into his bosom and drag them down to the fires of Hell.
And Andrea stopped talking. So I’m jabbering, you know it’s hot and humid and I’m nervous, and what’s interesting is I’m nervous because I’m looking at a person that I’m going to represent that is obviously mentally ill – her very presentation speaks to that – but a person who could do what she did.
This is not your bank robbery kind of ride, this is not your hijacking a restaurant and shooting a patron, this is not a bar room fight where somebody gets killed. This is the very definition of motherhood that is reversed. It’s Madonna and child, smashed into a million pieces.
I mean we think of our own love for our mothers or our mother’s love for us, and everything that the mother ever did for us, from changing diapers to going to Little League games to fighting our side with teachers. Andrea did those things. And then on June the 20th of ’01 the world turned upside down in the lives of those children.
Her life had been turned upside down for quite some time, but the very person you trusted the most in this world was doing something that she knew what was right to do, but they didn’t understand.
So I tried to get Andrea to sign this form, but Andrea wouldn’t sign the form. I said, “Allright, I’m going to leave you Andrea, and I’m going to go back to my office, and tomorrow I’m going to come see you and I want you to talk to Doctor Ferguson and some of your other nurses so they will tell you that you have to sign this form so that I can get your medical records.” I said, “You know, we can take care of the execution.”
I’ve since learned that you, with people who are delusional or become psychotic, if you try to explain away their delusion by objective evidence to show that they’re out of their minds, to show that they really are in Houston, Texas at two o’clock in the afternoon and not addressing the general assembly in Johannesburg, South Africa at ten or midnight, if you try to explain objectively, a delusion is such a strong world in which the person, the mentally ill person lives, then you become part of the conspiracy, and that you are immediately distrusted by your client.
So I explained to Andrea, “You know, listen Andrea, we can get to the death row issue. That’s not going to be a problem, but we’ve got to go through this process.” Trying to add some rationale.
And she’d go “I understand.” So as I stand up to leave she mumbles something, so I bent down to put my ear up to the aluminum and I said, “What did you say?”And she said, “Please don’t leave me alone.”
So I continued to sit there for thirty minutes and it dawned on me that she was the very living definition of being alone.
She was alone because she was physically isolated, she was alone in her world because nobody else knew what she knew, nobody else lived in that world, nobody else knew that she killed her kids less than twenty-four hours before because she had to save their souls from being fired up for the rest of all eternity in Hell, and that was the true meaning of being alone, mentally and physically.
So I sat and I talked for thirty minutes just jabbering away about anything I could think of, and then we decided to part and I went back to see her the next day.
She had her first assessment. She was seated, I wasn’t there, but the doctor’s notes were just huge, everything taken down, everything, it was perfect.
She was sitting in a semi-closet in a steel back chair with her back to the hallway and Doctor Ferguson was in the closet and there was a mental health worker on each side, and there was a very small table maybe the size of that glass table behind you separating the two.
There was a young man by the name of Washington that had just joined the M.H.M.R.A. and he was huge, and he was trying to keep the prying eyes of the deputies from listening in because the same deputy that would watch her every fifteen minutes was also trying to conduct his own investigation.
So he’s trying to hear her say that she knew what she did was wrong. Right? Trying to make her not be equated with the insanity definition in Texas, and be punished with the possibility of the death penalty.
So Washington is trying to keep this conversation confidential. Andrea is beginning to unravel, she’d been given Ativan, an anti-agitation, but it’s also a tongue-loosener, and she begins to moan about the deaths of her children:
“Why all five, why not just one,” telling Doctor Ferguson that “The sounds of the demons coming in my cell, I take my food tray and I turn it a certain way and I silence the sounds.”
Well the sounds are real because they’re the sounds of other inmates that are mentally ill, screaming at each other, or the sounds of jailers screaming, or the sounds of doors clanging and chains and the sounds of the jail. And she thought they were the sounds of the demons trying to get into her cellblock.
She tells Ferguson, “Get a chisel, Doctor Ferguson, and crack open my skull and you will see the imprint of the beast on my brain.”
She begs Washington, who is towering over her, to look down on her forehead and he will see the signs, the six-six-six, the signs of evil. Washington is paying too much attention to the deputies trying to elbow him out of the way.
But he does and he looks down, and he’s a pretty religious young man, and he jumps back and sees three markings on her scalp. She had a bald spot where she had rubbed, and the three marks were three scabs that had formed where she had been scratching the imaginary six-six-six for weeks off the top of her head.
That day, out there at the 942 Beachcomber, she had determined the night before that she was going to take the lives of her children. Rusty had to go to work at like nine o’clock, or be at NASA at nine, something of that fashion.
He would leave about a quarter till, maybe earlier. He had seen fit to bring his own mother down from Kentucky to help Andrea care for the kids because it was obvious to Rusty that Andrea couldn’t take care of the needs of five growing youngsters. Noah was seven when he died, and Mary was six months old.
Unfortunately for Andrea’s kids, Mrs. Yates, Rusty’s mother would not arrive at the house until around ten o’clock. So Andrea had a window of opportunity of about an hour and fifteen minutes to do what she did.
Before Rusty left Andrea put a little ointment on the inside of Paul’s lip, Paul had hurt himself on a playground accident, and I often thought how touching that was because there’s an act of motherly love, and this kid is about to lose his life.
I couldn’t come to grips with that. She helps make cereal, Rusty kisses the kids goodbye, not knowing that he’ll never see them alive again. He leaves, and she shuts the doors, locks the doors, pulls the blinds.
Takes Mary, and puts her in the bathroom, and gives her a bottle, and she wants to keep an eye out on Mary because she doesn’t want to see her walking or crawling away and hurting herself. How ironic is that? Mary was the last to die. But again, another act of motherly love.
She fills the bath up and she begins to drown each child.After the child is drowned she takes the body of that child, walks twenty-six feet back to the master bedroom, places the child’s head on a pillow, and covers the child with a sheet.
When she drowns Mary, who is the next to last to die, she takes Mary, and she takes Mary’s body and she puts it in the crux of John’s arm, wraps John’s arm around her torso, as if to give the impression that little brother taking care of little sister.
I’ve talked to a lot of psychiatrists about the meaning of that, and nobody could give me a meaning. It’s subject to anybody’s interpretation. I choose to think that it’s big brother taking care of little sister down the road to eternity. But that’s my own interpretation.
And then she drowns Noah. Noah was a very difficult death. She’s too exhausted to pick Noah out of the tub, so she gets on the phone and she calls 9-1-1. The State relies on that phone call in suggesting that she knew what she was doing was wrong because she knew to call 9-1-1. You call 9-1-1 for assistance, that’s not the police department necessarily, that’s the dispatcher.
“I need a police officer.” “Why do you need a police officer?” “I just need a police officer.”
No emotion, no tears, no hysteria, no sorrow, no remorse, nothing that one would expect to hear coming from the mouth of the woman that just killed five children. She never does tell the dispatcher why she needs a police officer.
Officer Knapp is the first on the scene, Andrea comes and unlocks the door and here comes Knapp. She says, “Come on in.”
He says, “Why did you call, ma’am?” She says, “Well I’ve just killed my kids.” His first thought is, I cannot believe that a crack-pot mom would make such a stupid phone call, we have so many other emergencies in the city of Houston.
Andrea points down the hallway, the twenty-six steps down this carpeted hallway. By this time it was soaking wet. He goes down and he pulls the sheet back and sees what he first thinks are four sleeping children. He sees Mary in John’s arms.
But he sees the froth around their mouths and he checks the vital signs. Andrea is standing right over his shoulder and he realizes that Andrea is telling him the truth so he says, “Go back and sit down on that couch.”
She turns around and goes back. He checks the vital signs again and goes back and starts getting information from her, covers the kids back up. “Name, dates of birth. What does your husband do?”
Every statistical piece of information he could possibly write down about Andrea Yates and her background and her kids, he writes down. Officer Stumpo arrives at the scene, the next police officer to arrive.
He goes back, double-checks the work of Knapp, checks the vital signs, and as he’s walking back he looks to the left in the bathroom and he sees the body of Noah face down in the tub and he’s angry, and rightly so.
I’ve got nothing against any of the emotions shared by these police officers. This is a horrible, horrific tragedy that they were a part of. I know that some had to get their own counseling.
Stumpo asked questions, “I wished I knew where a glass, a clean glass was.” Andrea points to the cupboard, and by that time the media is staring to surround the house, and other officers want to get in.
The back door’s locked, and Knapp or Stumpo, one of the two, muses to himself, “I wonder where the key to the back door is.”
Andrea points out where the key is. She knows all these things. Unlocks the back door and other officers come in. Andrea is taken down to the homicide division and she gives this confession to Officer Sergeant Mehl, Eric Mehl, great police detective.
He doesn’t videotape it because that’s not his practice, but he does audio tape her. He asks the same questions that Knapp asked, and gets the same responses, no hesitation. Dates of birth, birthdays, schools, grades, she’s home schooling the kids.
Then he stumbles on a question that is the very first time that gives us some indication of where to go. The question is, “You filled the bath tub?” “I did.” “What were you going to do that for?”“To drown my children.” “Why were you going to drown your children?”
For fifteen seconds it’s absolute silence, there’s not a word spoken. Mehl finally punctuates the silence with, “Where you mad at them? Did they do something wrong?” He was stumbling around.
Andrea said, “No, no, no.”I asked Mehl the second time on the witness stand, I said, “Sergeant what was she doing in those sixteen or fifteen seconds of silence?”
He said, “Well, she was trying to mouth words but they would not come out.” It was apparent that he had gotten only half of the equation.
Perfect offense report, all the stats down right, but didn’t get up here, didn’t get the mental aspect, and that’s when he takes her down to M.H.M.R.A. Before trial I remember, obviously I had to go to the house, and it took me four months to go down to the scene.
Rusty had moved back into the house within ten days of the deaths of the kids, and I’d taken a psychiatrist and my partner Wendell Odom, who did a magnificent job on both cases.
And while we’re down there I hear the dog barking, and I’m thinking that the dog is thinking that the kids are back home. The tricycles are lined up by size, four tricycles, Mary didn’t have one, and they’re in the back yard.
Rusty gives us a tour around the house. Shows us the bathroom, the bathtub. I walk down the hall to the master bedroom and ironically, when you go out to the scene you always find something that’s not in the offense report, and is not covered in the crime scene video, that can be beneficial if you go to the scene.
There were individual pictures of Rusty and Andrea with each kid that she would pass by as she carried the body and put the body in the bed. I went into the home school room and the books were still there, and on the little scratch board where you put little notes there was a Mother’s Day card from Noah, and it said, “Please God help my mother get better.” That was not on a crime scene video.
So we get ready to go to trial and trial starts in February of ’02. I finally come to the conclusion that to wrap my arms around this whole concept I need some assistance, so I get some professional help.
I go and I talk to one of our experts who sends me over to a third party. I go to one visit and I said, “I can’t seem to even be able to touch her when we have contact visits, when we have experts that interview with her and I’d introduce her to the expert.
She’s getting better, she’s on that medication, it’s magnificent the way she has improved, the medication is unbelievable. I wasn’t able to do it, I couldn’t cross that threshold.”
This fine doctor told me, she said, “You know, do you believe that Andrea Yates loved her kids?” I said, “There’s no question.
Everybody I’ve ever talked to, every film that I’ve ever seen, hours of home videos, birthday parties and Christmas, all the holidays that you see the interaction with Andrea and her kids, and they all love their mother and their mother loves them.”
Then she said, “Well do you believe that Andrea was mentally ill, suffering from a delusion?” I said, “There’s no doubt in my mind.
I mean, for one thing, you don’t take the mother I just described and turn into the monster mom that’s all over television. Obviously there’s something that’s gone awry. Sure she’s mentally ill.”
She said, “Well the next logical conclusion is that she loves her kids and she’s psychotically delusional. What she did was the ultimate act of motherly love: saving their souls.
No mother would want their children burning in the fires of Hell, regardless of the theological ‘Is there or is there not,’ the belief is there.” I walked out of that doctor’s office and my world had changed. I said, “Wow, it’s so simple and makes so much sense.”
Ten years later, Andrea and I are as close as father and daughter can be. I talk to her maybe three or four times a week. I see her as frequently as I can.
I know that the trauma that she went through in that first trial. The State sought the death penalty and Andrea was sitting next to me and Wendell.
When the State decided to bring in the photographs of the crime scene, the autopsy photographs, we had a monitor on our table, and Andrea would be ratcheted up to a higher level of Haldol during those days.
Normally she was on fifteen milligrams of Haldol, but when we knew in advance that pajamas would be coming out or the crime scene video then the psychiatrist would raise it up to twenty-five milligrams.
Twenty-five milligrams of Haldol would put you and you and you, or me under the table. They’d carry us out of here. But for Andrea is just made her able to not go back into a psychotic delusion because of the trauma of what she was seeing.
I frequently go back to that old courtroom, which is now part of the juvenile criminal justice system, juvenile court. They’ve remodeled it, but it’s the same.
The hold over there is the same, and the door is the same, and the size of the courtroom hasn’t changed. There was a psychiatrist in the audience, that was anonymous, that would sit there and watch Andrea during these moments.
In the hold over there, there’s this wooden door that would be opened and there was a psychiatrist behind that door watching Andrea during these moments to make sure they could tip us off and let us know if Andrea’s going over the edge.
Jury verdict comes back. Park Dietz testifies; want to hear anything about that?
CHAMMAH: I do, yeah.
PARNHAM: Doctor Dietz takes the stand and he’s the State’s forensic psychiatrist and I had spent months reading his testimony in various cases. I realized what a brilliant, charismatic man he was.
Even his words were just wonderfully persuasive on the printed page. So I remember seeing him for the first time he walks into this crowded courtroom, and he stands there, and we have an expert on our side by the name of Doctor Resnick who had tried a number of cases on the other side against Dietz: the Unabomber case, Jeffrey Dahmer, all those famous cases.
Dietz kind of stands there basking, he’ll deny this, but everybody else is seated and he’s looking around the room.
He took the stand and testified that, I asked a question, I said, I was trying to make Doctor Dietz out to be an entrepreneur, a forensic, paid psychiatrist that would take the witness stand for whoever hired him.
He hadn’t treated a patient since ’86, hadn’t given any medication I believe since ’86, knew nothing admittedly about women’s mental health.
As a matter of fact, he testified that he treats both men and women the same, and women’s mental health and men’s mental health are worlds apart.
I can see him getting a little annoyed with me because I’m asking all these questions about all these businesses that he’s in, and he really wants to get up there and give an opinion about all of these subjective circumstances:
the 9-1-1 call, the covering with the sheets, the fact that she was not remorseful, and she was ashamed, and that shows that she knew what she was doing was wrong, and Satan was encouraging her, and certainly Satan, we know Satan is evil, so if you were encouraged by Satan then you must know what you’re doing is wrong, and we’ll talk about that a little more in a minute.
He even passed out of the Houston bar area, the lawyers’ bar, pamphlets before he came to town about his team of forensic experts. He had experts in threat assessment, workplace violence, an expert in everything you can think of, but not one mention of any expert on his team, not one mention of women’s mental health.
So I took it down, one by one, I said, “Let’s see, what does this doctor do, and what does this doctor do?” I said, “Tell me Doc, where’s women’s mental health?”
He got very frustrated with me, well it’s not there, he tried not to show that. But I knew if I got on his battleground he’d kill me because he was brilliant.
He testified in the, consulted in the Hinckley case, to the F.B.I. when Hinckley shot Reagan. So I found out that he was a consultant for Law & Order, and I asked him a question, “You are a consultant for Law & Order, aren’t you Doctor Dietz?” “Yes, I am, two of them.”
“And on either of those shows, Doctor Dietz, was there ever a show on women’s mental health upon which you consulted?”
Now I didn’t know the answer to that question, but I figured I did because NBC would never hire a non-expert to consult on a women’s mental health deal, unless, well they’d never do it.
He was an admitted non-expert in women’s mental health. As I turn around to go back to the council table, I’ll never forget this, he says, “As a matter of fact.”
And I knew when he said “As a matter of fact,” I might as well keep walking out the door because it’s over, I mean I’m going to get clobbered.
There was a show that dealt with women’s mental health, postpartum depression, where a woman drowned her children in a bathtub, plead not guilty by reason of insanity, and was acquitted, and it aired in the Houston area shortly before this happened.
Now the jury knew from previous testimony that Rusty and Andrea were devotees of Law & Order. This is the singular piece of evidence that would give, as crazy as it is, give the jury an objective reason for Andrea to do what she did, versus mental illness.
The prosecutor cross-examined our expert, Lucy Puryear, “If you’d known about her watching Law & Order wouldn’t you have asked about that?” Argued to a jury, it was her way out, she tells Doctor Dietz, sees this program, and this is the way out of a trapped marriage.
The jury came back in three hours after three weeks of mental health testimony, and convicted her, and now we go into sentencing.
So the judge gave us until the next day to get ready. I heard rumors in the audience, “You know I’ve watched Law & Order, and I don’t remember such a show.”
The next thing I know somebody slips me a slip of paper with the cell phone number of Dick Wolf on it. She had been a person with Dateline. She said that he could confirm or deny this.
I said, “Well thank you.” I immediately called him and a gruff voice answered the phone. He said, “Dick Wolf.” And I said, “Mr. Wolf, was there such a show on Law & Order?”
He said, “I respect Doctor Dietz immensely, but there’s never been a show on Law & Order, never even considered, on the issue of postpartum depression or even mental illness.
You pick me up tomorrow morning at the Four Seasons at seven thirty, we’ll go down and we’ll tell that judge, move a motion of mistrial, and by gosh we’ll set this record straight and get this woman the help she needs.”
I tell people, I go out and wash my car, get a new suit and a new tie, I’m picking up Dick Wolf at the Four Seasons. I show up seven thirty, in the morning, see no Dick Wolf, see nobody that looks like what I perceive to be Dick Wolf. I’m walking around, finally I get the guts about eight fifteen to go to the reservation desk.
Yes, he had made reservations and canceled them. So I get back on the cell phone and I must have called his cell phone thirty times that day and he never answers. He ends up getting lawyered-up.
NBC I’m sure was concerned about liability, but I had to get someone down that had personal knowledge so I buy another day with the judge without having to share with her because I’d have to share with the prosecutors what was going on, but I get another day.
So that night I get a call at the house from a law firm, how they got my home number I’ll never know, that tells me, this young lawyer, that they’ve gone through every episode of Law & Order and there’s never been a show that dealt with this.
Doctor Dietz admitted that he was in error and will sign an affidavit later if necessary but the prosecutor will sign one now. We needed that because Andrea was facing the death penalty.
She asked me back in hold over after the jury’s verdict of guilt, she says, “Gee, what happens now Mr. Parnham?” I said, “You’ll be okay, it’s going to be okay.”
What did I know? It was so fortuitous that it came out that way. We read the stipulations to the jury, or I read the stipulation to the jury, and the next thing I know the jury comes back and thirty-four minutes later, or thirty-seven minutes, finds that she is no longer a danger to society, given her automatic life in the penitentiary.
That case is appealed. She goes to Skyview. I visit with her at Skyview, which is about three-and-a-half hours away from here, frequently. She’s up there for four years. In 2006 the case is reversed on the Law & Order episode.
George Parnham is a criminal defense lawyer practicing in Houston, Texas. He has been representing clients in capital cases since 1970 and in 2001 he was retained to represent Andrea Yates as she went on trial for the murder of her five children. As a result of his work in that case, Parnham has worked with the Yates Children Memorial Foundation to spread awareness of the dangers of postpartum mental illness. As of 2011, he and the Yates Foundation have brought case to the Texas Legislature, on three separate occasions, to change the way the mental illness is addressed throughout the judicial process. In Tape 1, Parnham talks of his early life studying in a Catholic seminary, working as a salesman in New Orleans, serving in the Army from 1963-64, and receiving his law degree in 1970. He describes his forty-two year career representing clients from all professions and walks of life as their criminal defense. Throughout the interview he talks about his mindset as a defense attorney, as well as his experience defending Andrea Yates as she faced the death penalty during her first trial. In Tape 2, Parnham picks up in 2006 with his defense of Yates during her second trial for the 2001 murder of her children. He gives anecdotes that illustrate the mental state of Yates and speaks about her history with mental illness and what that meant for his defense. Parnham also gives insights to the use of media in defending a high profile, capital case, what the Yates Foundation is doing to help mothers suffering from postpartum depression get help, and the process of selecting a “death-qualified jury.” In Tape 3, Parnham continues discussing the Yates’ trial, the difference in the way the trial may have proceeded if it had been held in Austin rather than Houston. He segues into a discussion about mental illness in the judicial process and the emotional impact a case like Yates’ has on all involved – from attorneys to media reps. This interview took place on June 28, 2011, at the office of George Parham in Houston, Texas.
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George ParnhamRole: Narrator
Texas After Violence ProjectRole: Collaborator
Maurice ChammahRole: Interviewer
Emily SmithRole: Videographer
Christian ReesRole: Transcriber
Rebecca LorinsRole: Proofreader
Christian ReesRole: Writer of accompanying material
Emily SemonRole: Writer of accompanying material
Texas After Violence Project
University of Texas Libraries
North America--United States--Texas
North America--United States--Texas--Houston
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