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With Andrea Pia Yates’ attorneys filing a notice of appeal, a connection between Yates and the television show “Law & Order” likely will be scrutinized. It’s been just a few weeks since Yates, a mother now serving a life sentence after drowning her five children last summer in their Houston home, was convicted and sentenced for capital murder. Despite evidence of mental illness, the jury found Yates guilty of murder on March 12 instead of finding her not guilty by reason of insanity. On April 3, Yates’ attorneys filed a notice of appeal from her conviction and sentencing. “We think our major issue on appeal will be the nonexistent ‘Law & Order’ episode,” says Yates’ attorney George Parnham of Houston’s Parnham & Associates. Parnham says that the state’s key witness, Dr. Park Dietz, gave incorrect information while on the stand concerning an alleged “Law & Order” episode in which a woman who drowned her children was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Dietz — who served as an expert in high-profile trials such as those of Milwaukee serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, “Unabomber” Theodore Kaczynski and John F. Hinckley Jr., who tried to assassinate former President Ronald Reagan — is a technical adviser to the “Law & Order” television series. In fact, notes Parnham, no such episode existed. The significance of that testimony? Not only did the prosecution mention it in closing argument, Parnham says, but they also cross-examined one of the defense’s expert witnesses, Dr. Lucy Puryear, about the importance of the alleged TV episode relative to an issue of premeditation and getting off on an insanity defense. “So it was a big deal. It suggested premeditation. There was testimony that [Yates regularly] watched ‘Law & Order’ and obviously would have seen this [episode],” Parnham says. Parnham says that he and co-counsel Wendell A. Odom Jr., a Houston solo, are in the process of attempting to talk to the jury to ascertain how important the “Law & Order” testimony was and the weight jurors attributed to it. Harris County, Texas, prosecutor Joseph Owmby, division chief of Felony Division C, who tried the case with co-counsel Kaylynn Williford, felony-court chief for the 230th District Court, doesn’t give much weight to this ground of appeal. “It’s very difficult for us to address that because we didn’t ask that question. We didn’t introduce that into the trial,” Owmby says. “That question came as a response on cross-examination. The question was not to clear up anything we had brought up. We had not talked about television at all.” The defense brought the issue up in trial, he says. UNKNOWN OUTCOME Another ground for appeal, Parnham says, will be constitutional issues surrounding the failure of the Texas criminal procedure statute to permit jurors to know the outcome if they had found Yates not guilty by reason of insanity. “Why in the world would you prohibit the jury from learning the consequences of a ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ verdict when you are able to inform them that ‘right to the penitentiary’ means 40 calendar years? It doesn’t stand the test of logic,” Parnham says. “That’s basically asking for a change in well-settled law,” Owmby says. “I don’t know how to address that either. I mean, we followed the law.” In addition, Parnham says they have been in touch with organizations and legislators interested in examining the insanity defense as it exists in Texas. “This is a standard from 1843,” Parnham says of the insanity defense used in Texas. “It’s archaic and doesn’t apply to mental illness as we know it to be. We still have a long way to understand it obviously, but we are not in step with the medical community.” “I read a lot about the history of insanity laws,” Owmby says. “This has been like a tennis match through the ages. … This matter was fought in the 1700s and 1800s in more archaic language, but still it’s the same issue.” Owmby says it’s the Legislature’s job to examine the law. “I think they need to look at it carefully and not in the emotion of one case or in response to their emotion to the result in one case,” he says. Parnham says the next step, now that the notice of appeal has been filed, is to obtain a transcript of the entire case — from competency hearing to motion to suppress to jury selection to hearings on various motions to the actual trial — and go through it “with a fine-toothed comb” looking for errors that might exist. Whether they move for a new trial remains to be seen.

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