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Law School Case Brief

Yates v. State - 171 S.W.3d 215 (Tex. App. 2005)


Generally, if a witness has testified to material, inculpatory facts against a defendant and, after the verdict but before a motion for new trial has been ruled upon, the witness makes an affidavit that he testified falsely, a new trial should be granted. This rule does not require that the State have knowledge that the testimony was false. The appellate court reviews the record to determine whether the State used the false testimony and, if so, whether there is a reasonable likelihood that the false testimony could have affected the judgment of the jury. 


Appellant defendant Andrea Pia Yates was charged with capital murder for the drowning deaths of three of her five children. At trial, four mental health experts testified that Yates did not know right from wrong, was incapable of knowing what she did was wrong, or believed that her acts were right. The State's sole mental-health expert, Dr. Park Dietz, testified that Yates, although psychotic on the date in question, knew that what she did was wrong. On cross-examination, Dietz testified that there was an episode of a television show, which Yates was known to watch, where a woman with postpartum depression drowned her children in the bathtub and was found not guilty by reason of insanity. Dietz claimed the episode aired shortly before the crime occurred. Rejecting Yates’ insanity defense, the jury found her guilty and, having answered the special issue regarding Yates’ continuing threat to society "No," assessed punishment at life in prison. Following the verdict and before the punishment phase of the trial, Yates learned that Dietz had presented false testimony. Yates moved for a mistrial, but the trial court denied the motion. Yates asserted 19 points of error in which she challenged, among other things, the factual sufficiency of the evidence to support the verdict rejecting the insanity defense, the denial of a motion for mistrial based on false testimony, and the denial of her right to due process by the use of false or perjured testimony.


Did the trial court abuse its discretion in denying defendant's motion for mistrial based on the false testimony of the State's expert witness?




Reversing, the appellate court held that the trial court abused its discretion in denying a mistrial. The State used Dietz’ testimony twice, in a cross-examination and in closing argument, to suggest to the jury that Yates patterned her actions after that television episode. Because Dietz was the only mental health expert who testified that defendant Yates knew right from wrong, his testimony was critical to establish the State's case. The court concluded that there was a reasonable likelihood that Dietz's false testimony could have affected the judgment of the jury. The court further concluded that Dietz's false testimony affected the substantial rights of appellant. Therefore, the trial court abused its discretion in denying appellant's motion for mistrial.

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