HOUSTON (Reuters) - Andrea Yates, the Houston mother serving life for drowning her five children in a case that shocked America, had her murder convictions overturned by a state appeals court on Thursday because of flawed testimony by an expert witness.
The three-member panel of the Texas 1st Court of Appeals said it reversed the verdicts of a lower court in part because of errors in the testimony from the state's expert psychiatric witness, Dr. Park Dietz.
At the 2002 trial, Dietz told the jury Yates patterned the killings on an episode of the television series "Law & Order," for which he had worked as a consultant. However, defense lawyers discovered the episode he cited never existed.
"We conclude that there is a reasonable likelihood that Dr. Dietz's false testimony could have affected the judgment," the court said in a unanimous ruling overturning the convictions.
The prosecution plans to appeal the ruling.
Defense attorney George Parnham unsuccessfully sought a mistrial based on Dietz's error. He contends the statement unfairly planted the seed of premeditation in jurors' minds.
The Houston jury rejected Yates' insanity defense and found her guilty of capital murder for three of the deaths, although they elected to sentence her to life in prison rather than pass the death penalty.
Yates, who told police she killed the children to save them from the devil, is currently serving her sentence at a psychiatric prison facility in East Texas.
PROSECUTOR PLANS APPEALS
Harris County prosecutor Joe Ownby said, "I am disappointed but not shocked at the ruling." He said the testimony by Dietz was "not critical as to the outcome of the case."
The prosecution plans to seek a rehearing by the same panel that ruled on Thursday. If that fails it would ask for a hearing by the full 1st Court of Appeals, and if necessary would take the case to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state's highest criminal court.