"It's a shame that there's no law that can give Russell Yates his due," writes syndicated columnist Debra Saunders. "Russell Yates ought to be locked up instead of his wife," says writer Cindy Hasz. Creators Syndicate's Froma Harrop sneers that he probably "misses the obedient drudge who bore and raised his five children more than the five children." Harsh words for Russell Yates have come from many others, particularly former O. J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark.
What these and others forget is that it's hard to make the right decision when you don't have a lot of options. According to Andrea Yates' brother, Andrew Kennedy, Russell Yates "did his best....He trusted the doctors and he did everything they said to do. He made sure she took her medication."
Psychiatrist Mohammed Saeed took Yates off the drug Haldol on June 4. Russell Yates, worried about his wife, brought her back to Dr. Saeed on June 18. The doctor said he saw no sign of psychosis and sent her home.
Two days later, she killed their five children.
Instead of using 20-20 hindsight, let's look at the situation as it must have appeared to Russell Yates before June 20. Mental illness is difficult for untrained people to cope with and to comprehend. Dr. Saeed had indicated that he believed that Andrea Yates was getting better, and Andrea herself has testified that she told nobody, not even her husband, about the "voices in her head." While Russell surely had doubts about leaving the kids with her, he didn't have a lot of choices. He couldn't quit his job to care for the kids--somebody had to put food on the table. Ending the home-schooling, a violation of both of their beliefs, might have been a severe blow to his fragile wife's self-esteem, perhaps pushing her over the edge.
Instead, Russell made the one move he needed to make--he had his mother come in to watch the kids every day. He generally left for work at 9 am and his mother arrived at 10 am, and he thought he had the situation under control.
He also probably believed that the best thing to do was to try to keep their family life stable, to try to be cheerful and to make the kids happy, and to hope that the medications would work and that his wife would get better. He had seen Andrea spiral down after the birth of their fourth child, and then apparently become completely healthy again--exercising regularly and cheerfully being super-mom. He may have believed that much of what Andrea was going through early last year was simply post-pregnancy mood swings, and that she would get better if he was patient.
He also attributed much of his wife's distress to the death of her father in March of last year. And he no doubt was in some denial, as people who are trapped in difficult situations often are. As he walked out the door to go to work on June 20, should he really have expected that his wife was waiting for him to leave so she could kill their children?
The genuine mistakes Russell Yates made came earlier, when both he and Andrea decided to have a fifth child (perhaps because one or both of them wanted to have a girl), and when they decided upon home-schooling. Yet these decisions, which are now used against Russell, were mutual and were based upon the religious and moral beliefs of both Russell and Andrea. In fact, the testimony of Terry Arnold, a local merchant, indicates that Andrea Yates may have wanted a sixth child. Arnold testified that when he asked Andrea last year if they planned to have another child, a sudden wave of sadness washed over her.
"I felt like I had hit a sore subject," Arnold said. "There was a change in her demeanor...I thought she was going to cry."
A neighbor's report that Andrea routinely calls Rusty from jail and asks him to dutifully run errands for the prisoners indicates that Rusty was certainly not always in control of their relationship and the decisions they made.
Andrea's best friend claims that Russell didn't help out much around the house. It's hard to know how true this is, but we do know that Russell Yates was involved with his kids--he coached their sports teams, played basketball with them in the driveway regularly, selected and purchased some of their school materials, and was often seen around the neighborhood in the evenings as he walked with his family and pushed his youngest daughter in a stroller. He and his kids made lists of things they could do to cheer mommy up. And Russell alone shouldered the burden of supporting a wife and five children--a task certainly equal to the strain of being a housewife if home schooling is not in the equation.
Andrea Yates' defenders claim that she is not guilty of her crimes due to mental illness, and they may be correct. But the husband who has stood by his wife from the day of the tragedy, who has testified in her defense, and who has fought the public perception of her as a monster, deserves better than to be blamed for the murders and to be vilified as a cruel, domineering patriarch. Russell Yates is a flawed yet decent human being who tried to do what he could in a difficult and cloudy situation. Whether sane or insane, it is Andrea Yates, not Russell Yates, who killed their five children.
This column first appeared in the Houston Chronicle (3/11/02).