published Sunday, July 22nd, 2012

Prosecutors say drugs played a part in sons' deaths, but guilty or not the mom already has a life sentence

Natasha Moses Bates
Natasha Moses Bates
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Car-related child overheating deaths

U.S. deaths

2012 -- 12 (to date)

2011 -- 33

1998 to present -- 539 deaths

Average number of fatalities per year -- 38

Region-wide deaths, 1998-2011:

Tennessee -- 18

Georgia -- 20

Alabama -- 9

Source: Jan Null, meteorologist with San Francisco State University Dept. of Geosciences

Region-wide car-related child overheating deaths, by year

TENNESSEE

2012 - 2

2011- 0

2010 - 3

2009 - 0

2008 - 1

2007 - 2

2006 - 2

2005 - 2

Georgia:

2012 - 0

2011 - 3

2010 - 3

2009 - 0

2008 - 2

2007 - 2

2006 - 1

2005 - 1

Alabama:

2012 - 0

2011 - 1

2010 - 2

2009 - 0

2008 - 0

2007 - 1

2006 - 0

2005 - 2

Source: Jan Null, meteorologist with San Francisco State University Department of Geosciences

SAFETY TIPS

• Even with windows cracked open, temperatures inside a vehicle can spike 20 degrees within 10 minutes. Never risk leaving a child or a pet in a closed car even for a brief time.

• If you see a child unattended in a hot vehicle, call 911.

• When a child is in the back seat, put your cellphone, purse or briefcase back there, too. Or keep a stuffed animal in the car seat and place it next to you on the passenger seat as a reminder.

• More than 1 in 5 children who die of heatstroke were supposed to be dropped off at daycare that morning. To prevent this, participate in Ray Ray's Pledge: Make a pact with your child's teacher that you will call them if the child will be late or absent, and they will call you if your child does not arrive at the usual time.

Sources: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ray Ray's Pledge, Jan Null, San Francisco State University Department of Geosciences

FOR MORE DATA:

Visit www.ggweather.com/heat

The trial has been torturous for everyone.

The judge has decided against allowing prosecutors to show jurors photos of the two little boys who had died in the car, calling them "devastating."

The jury has had to sit through the graphic accounts of how both boys' breaths faltered and heartbeats lagged in 120-degree temperatures inside the car, while their young mother was fast asleep inside the nearby building.

The mother, who has been undergoing intensive counseling for her suicidal state since they died, has had to listen as witnesses catalog each minute she failed to care for her children, each moment a deepening disaster.

In his concluding remarks, the mother's attorney stands before the jury and asks: "Is that lady a criminal or is she a tragic figure who made a horrible mistake?"

Defense attorney Mike Galligan's question, posed at the 1995 trial of a McMinnville, Tenn., woman, hangs over the pending arraignment of Tasha Bates, the 26-year-old Cleveland, Tenn., woman who faces murder and methamphetamine charges after her two sons, 5-year-old Leland and 3-year-old River, died of hyperthermia -- severe overheating of the body -- in June.

Bates has told officials that she left the children outside unattended on a Slip'n Slide water toy in the 101-degree heat, and when she found them 45 minutes later, they were unconscious.

But Bradley County sheriff's investigators and a grand jury have stated otherwise. They say the boys' autopsies show they suffered fatal injuries in a searing hot car, and police said evidence showed that Bates had cooked and used meth.

If this is so, then Leland and River are now two of at least a dozen children who have died across the country so far this year from injuries suffered inside overheated cars.

Since 1998, an estimated 18 Tennessee children have died from overheating inside cars. In the same period, 20 children have died in Georgia, and nine have perished in Alabama, according to Jan Null, a meteorologist with San Francisco State University who has studied the problem and worked with child safety groups attempting to curb the numbers.

Nationwide, at least 539 children have died over the 14-year span -- an average of 38 per year -- since records started being kept.

Many of the fatalities, recorded as dots on Null's map, land in the Southeast where population is more condensed and temperatures are higher.

But temperatures don't have to be blistering to be lethal. In 2009, one San Francisco child died on a 67-degree day, Null said.

The fact that two boys died in the Cleveland, Tenn., case is rare, said Null. There is typically only one case per year nationwide where two children die in the same incident.

Drug- and alcohol-related cases like Bates' are also rare -- occurring in only 7 percent of children's heat-related deaths in vehicles -- according to a 2007 study by The Associated Press. In over half the cases, the parents got out of the car, completely forgetting that a child was inside.

"It seems to run across the entire spectrum of professions. We've seen lawyers, business executives and hospital administrators along with the poor and the unemployed," said Null. "There really is no common denominator."

In 911 tapes of the afternoon Bates found the boys, she is inconsolable, screaming "Please, help me! Please!" to first responders.

But Bradley County Assistant District Attorney Stephen Hatchett, who is prosecuting Bates' case, said even if Bates never intended to leave the boys in a car, her case is extreme.

"If the child's sleeping quietly, and you run into the store and forget about the child -- you, me, anybody can do that. If you have a parent who has put themselves in a position where they're not keeping their eyes on their child through something like drug use -- that is a completely different analysis," said Hatchett.

"That's a level of neglect that's not there with an overworked mother who forgets her child."

Hatchett said officials have had to treat children in the county who have suffered injuries after being left in closed, hot cars, but they never have dealt with a fatality before, and parents in the close-call cases have rarely been charged.

Linda Bates, the boys' paternal grandmother, agrees that it is much more than a case of forgetfulness.

"If it was just forgetfulness or a simple mistake, she wouldn't be charged the way she was," Linda Bates said. "There were drugs involved, and she put their lives in danger through that."

Linda Bates has custody of Skyler, brother of Leland and River and the oldest child of her son, Jonathan, and Tasha Bates -- who are divorced. That family connection keeps her from being able to condemn her former daughter-in-law as she has seen others do.

"I do know she loved the boys," she said softly. "Even if she made some horrible choices."

VARIED CONSEQUENCES

Is a parent's lasting agony of losing a child or children enough punishment for forgetfulness or negligence? Or is justice for the children only reached when charges are filed and verdicts are leveled?

The AP's 2007 report found that charges were filed in 49 percent of all vehicular hyperthermic deaths, and 81 percent resulted in convictions.

"There's such a huge range of how these are handled," said Null. "Each case just varies widely. You've got different states, you've got different DA's, you've got their different philosophies," he said.

At times the justice system seems gravely sympathetic, either deciding not to press charges against the parents, or dismissing them in the courtroom.

Other times, the parent meets the full brunt of the justice system and public disgust, with little to no mercy. Prosecutors say while both are serious, there's a difference between cases involving forgetful neglect and egregious, reckless neglect.

Null recalls two near-identical child heat death cases in Orange County and Los Angeles County, Calif., in 2005. One caregiver was prosecuted and the other wasn't.

Two local cases and their consequences fall on opposite sides of the spectrum.

Jennie Bain Ducker, the mother in the McMinnville case, was originally charged with first-degree murder for the deaths of her two toddlers, Dustin, 1, and Devin, 2.

Ducker, 20 at the time, had intentionally left them strapped in the vehicle while she went to visit her boyfriend at a motel, where she fell asleep until the middle of the following day.

Investigators believe the boys died the next morning, and estimated from Ducker's blood samples that her blood-alcohol content was nearly twice the legal limit when she fell asleep, according to newspaper archives.

Ducker's attorney at the time said she was deeply regretful over the incident and had to be counseled for severe depression.

The jury ultimately convicted her of aggravated child abuse, and she was sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Ducker was granted parole in her mid-30s in 2007, and her sentence was fulfilled early in 2008, according to the Tennessee Department of Correction.

That case turned out starkly different from a Chattanooga child-death case 12 years later.

In May 2007, 43-year-old businessman Robert Reid dropped three of his children off at school and in the hectic events of the morning forgot to drop off 5-month-old Timothy at day care.

Reid ignored several motion sensor alarms that went off in his BMW M5 sedan throughout the day, not seeing anyone outside the vehicle. He discovered Timothy lifeless behind the driver's seat after getting into the car to pick up his other children from school, newspaper archives show.

The temperature inside the car had soared to more than 140 degrees. Reid was charged with criminally negligent homicide and aggravated child abuse and neglect.

"He is totally, totally devastated," former Chattanooga Assistant Police Chief Tim Carroll said in newspaper interviews at the time.

"His reaction to this is totally what you would expect from someone who's lost a child. I couldn't imagine what he's feeling."

Hamilton County District Attorney Bill Cox later dropped the child abuse charge, though he kept the criminally negligent homicide charge.

Three months later, a grand jury decided not to indict Reid in the baby's death.

"He in essence has received a harsher punishment than anything they could give him in Criminal Court, because he lost his son that he loved very much," Reid's attorney, Jerry Summers, said after the jury's decision.

SEVERE CHARGES

Tasha Bates' murder charges are on the severe side of the spectrum. If convicted, she faces life in prison for the felony murder charge, between 15 and 25 years for aggravated child neglect, and 8 and 12 years for the meth charges.

Hatchett said the only plea deal his office would take is life in prison, but he expects a deal will not be drawn up.

Tasha Bates has not yet acquired an attorney, according to Bradley County General Sessions Court.

"Felony murder" means that a person was killed while the defendant was committing a related felony. In this case, that alleged felony is aggravated child neglect, Hatchett said.

He said a search of Tasha Bates' property uncovered evidence that led to the meth charges, and that the boys' autopsies led examiners to believe they were in an enclosed space.

"The car is the only enclosed space there," he said.

The car is still in the custody of the Bradley County Sheriff's Office to be used as evidence.

For Hatchett, the case is as much about meth as it is about a simple lapse of memory or judgment.

"This case is a reflection of the times as far as the meth epidemic," he said. "This is the reality of that life -- those children dying."

Even though Linda Bates craves justice for the boys, she said she is heartbroken over the charges that could end in a life sentence for their mother.

"I guess in my heart I hope she'll get some mercy, even though I know that a lot of folks would say she didn't give them any mercy," she says. "I do have a soft spot for her in me."

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