Even for an Expert, Blurred TV Images Became a False Reality

January 8, 2005


Mark Dietz is certain of one thing: he never should have taken "Law & Order" into the courtroom.

On Thursday a Texas appeals court overturned the murder convictions of Andrea Yates, the mother of five accused of drowning her children in a bathtub, saying that false testimony about the NBC television drama "Law & Order" by Dr. Dietz, a psychiatrist and frequent expert witness who also is a consultant to the show, might have poisoned the jury.

In an interview yesterday, Dr. Dietz said he regretted mentioning the show because it "injected something that didn't need to be there" into the case. That would have been so, he added, even if he had testified correctly about the "Law & Order" episodes on which he worked.

The case, perhaps more than any other recent incident, shows how the lines between fact and fiction, life and art, can become confused in the minds of even the most rigorously trained experts. It should come as little surprise that similar confusion might occur among average citizens.

Dr. Dietz testified in 2002 that an episode of "Law & Order" depicting a mother who drowned her children in a bathtub and was found not guilty by reason of insanity had been broadcast shortly before the Yates children were murdered.

There was no such show. But in the five months before the Yates children were killed in 2001, two episodes of the show did center on mothers who killed or were thought to have killed their children. Mrs. Yates frequently watched "Law & Order," a fact prosecutors mentioned in suggesting that she saw "a way out," thinking she could get away with murder by pleading insanity.

But Dr. Dietz said yesterday that he never thought such a television show could have prompted a mother to drown her children. He said he was simply "being defensive on a challenge to my credentials" by Mrs. Yates's lawyer when he invoked the show, wrongly confounding the facts of three child-murder cases on which he had worked and the two "Law & Order" episodes based on them.

After all, there is a long history - dating to Shakespeare's day at least, said Steven Brill, the writer and founder of Court TV - in which criminals say their actions were motivated or guided by outside forces like theater and music. Police and courtroom dramas on television and elsewhere have long used actual crimes and victims for plots and scripts. And "Law & Order" is known for episodes that are "ripped from the headlines," where fictionalized versions of real events are sensationalized and stripped of nuance, with crimes committed and verdicts delivered all within an hour.

" 'Law & Order' is the best known of these types of programs that take contemporary courtroom events and weave them into fiction," said Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.

Perhaps that is the reason no one immediately challenged Dr. Dietz's assertion that a television show could have anticipated, almost exactly, such an unthinkably horrible murder. "Up until the 1980's you wouldn't have seen a case like that on television," Dr. Thompson said. "But beginning in the mid-1980's," particularly after the advent of "Hill Street Blues," "there was almost nothing that was off limits."

Dr. Thompson said it was not particularly surprising that Dr. Dietz's memory proved faulty, because television often produces a sort of vague collective memory. As examples, Dr. Thompson pointed out that few people on "Star Trek" ever actually said, "Beam me up, Scotty," and that Maxwell Smart, of "Get Smart," rarely said, "Sorry about that, chief."

Dr. Dietz, who has consulted on more than 200 "Law & Order" episodes, said that when he learned that he had made a mistake, he sent a letter to prosecutors in the Yates case outlining the two episodes he had mistakenly conflated. One, titled "Denial," was based in part on two cases - involving Amy Grossberg, a New Jersey teenager who gave birth in a hotel room and then, with her boyfriend's help, dumped the baby in a trash container, and Melissa Drexler, a New Jersey girl who killed her baby after giving birth in a restroom stall at her prom.

That episode was originally broadcast in 1997, and again about three weeks before the Yates killings.

The other episode, "Angels," was modeled on Susan Smith, who sent a car with her children inside into a lake. The episode, first broadcast in 1995, was repeated in January 2001, five months before the Yates killings, and again two days after them.

In "Angels," the mother said that God had told her to kill the children, and she entered a plea of insanity. But she was convicted of murder.

In Dr. Dietz's testimony, he said the character in the show he was thinking of was successful with an insanity defense, and the prosecutor's closing statement expanded on the assertion. His discovery of his mistake came too late, however. The jury had already voted, rejecting the insanity defense.

"At no time have I ever believed or told anyone that I thought 'Law & Order' or any other television show gave Andrea Yates the idea to kill her children," Dr. Dietz said. (On CNN's "Larry King Live" on Thursday, Mrs. Yates's estranged husband, Russell, called Dr. Dietz's disavowal "too convenient.")

So why did Dr. Dietz bring the subject up in the trial?

"I was being defensive," he said. A defense lawyer for Mrs. Yates had raised the question of whether his consulting on the television show ever dealt with postpartum depression or women's mental health. Mrs. Yates's postpartum depression was diagnosed before the killings.

Dr. Dietz, who does not practice psychiatry but rather acts solely as a forensic consultant, said he viewed that as a challenge to whether he was professionally qualified to render a judgment on Mrs. Yates.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the jury appeared to believe Dr. Dietz, said Stanley A. Goldman, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a frequent television commentator on legal affairs. He noted that courtroom television shows had become increasingly prosecutor friendly, a factor that could well have an effect on juries.

"On 'Perry Mason,' the lawyers were always working to save defendants who were wrongly accused," Mr. Goldman said. "On 'Law & Order' everybody's guilty once they take them to trial."

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