published Monday, August 26th, 2013

Murder trial for Tasha Bates in the deaths of her children to begin in Bradley County

  • photo
    Tasha Bates' trial starts this week in the heat-related deaths of her 3-year-old and 5-year-old sons in Bradley County, Tenn.
    Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

ONLINE

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THIS WEEK

Watch for our coming coverage of the trial.

STORY SO FAR

June 28, 2012 -- Shortly before 3 p.m., Tasha Bates called 911 saying she had found the boys unresponsive at her Keith Valley Road home. Initially, she told first responders the boys might have drowned. Bates later tells officials she had left her boys unattended on a Slip 'n Slide outside her home for 45 minutes. The high that day was 101, according to National Weather Service records.

Authorities soon reported that the deaths didn't involve water, and Bates later told officials she had left the boys unattended on a Slip 'N Slide for 45 minutes.

River is pronounced dead at Skyridge Medical Center in Cleveland.

June 29 -- Leland is pronounced dead at T.C. Thompson Children's Hospital at Erlanger in Chattanooga.

July 18 -- Tasha Bates is arrested after being indicted by a grand jury for felony murder, aggravated child abuse and meth charges. The Bradley County Sheriff's Office detectives say they've found reason to believe her sons died in a car. She is given no bond.

July 20 -- A 911 tape of Tasha Bates' father, Mike Kile, calling for help is released. In the tape, Bates says that the boys were playing outside when they overheated.

August 13 -- At her arraignment, Tasha Bates' mother says the boys were Tasha's "whole life." "She has been a mother since before she was 18. She would never do anything to hurt them," she said.

Oct. 24 -- A final autopsy of the Bates' brothers reveals that River suffered core body temperatures of at least 109 degrees before his death. Officials said they believed the core temperature for Leland could have been just as high. The Bradley County medical examiner says the boys had the worst case of hyperthermia he had ever encountered. Both boys were hydrated and otherwise in good health.

Nov. 19 -- Trial date set for Aug. 27.

Court is always different when it concerns little ones.

As attorneys, families, potential jury members and a 27-year-old mother brace themselves for a high-profile Bradley County murder trial this week, they know the reality that the victims were 5- and 3-year-old boys will alter the dimensions of the courtroom.

That affects how juries are picked, how evidence is presented, the tenor in which witnesses testify, and how closely the media watches. It adds a weight that can be hard for even the veterans of the justice system to bear.

"It's such a tragic case, because you have little children involved. It's so sad for everyone. The tragedy of any of these cases ... it's just awful," said McMinn-ville, Tenn., attorney Michael Galligan.

Galligan defended a woman 20 years ago against charges very similar to those facing Tasha Bates, the 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 -- last summer.

Jury selection for Bates' trial starts Tuesday.

Bates, who has been in jail without bond for more than a year, will be tried before Bradley County Criminal Court Judge Amy Reedy.

Bates has told officials that she left the children outside unattended on a Slip 'N Slide 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 said 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.

The high level of media attention is something Bates' appointed attorney says concerned him.

"In every case that I try, I'm looking for a jury that will keep an open mind, regardless of what they have seen or read, that they will decide the case based on the evidence that is presented," said 10th Judicial District Public Defender Richard Hughes, who, along with attorney Keith Roberts, will defend Bates.

"In any case where there's been media coverage, the attorney has the responsibility to address that, to ask jurors if they've already formed an opinion."

Galligan said another likely factor attorneys will mull during jury selection is how many jurors are parents.

"That's hard picking a jury," Galligan said. "You clearly don't want any soccer moms on that jury. You want someone who's open-minded. I think that's just a hard, hard case."

Galligan was the attorney for Jennie Bain Ducker, a McMinnville, Tenn., mother who was tried in 1995 for first-degree murder in the overheating deaths of her two toddlers, Dustin, 1, and Devin, 2.

Ducker, 20 at the time, had 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.

The jury ultimately convicted her of aggravated child abuse, and she was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Ducker's sentence was completed early in 2008, according to the Tennessee Department of Correction.

Galligan said the fact that his client was accused of drinking and partying limited any sympathy from the jury.

"You see these cases all the time where a mom thinks she's dropped off [her children] at school and she accidentally leaves them in the car. A momentary lapse. A jury isn't inclined to do much there. But when you add drinking ... and not waking up till noon and that doesn't play very well to the jury."

Bradley County Assistant District Attorney Stephen Hatchett, who is prosecuting Bates' case, previously has said that the case is also about more than simple neglect.

"If the child's sleeping quietly, and you run into the store and forget about the child -- you, me, anybody can do that," he said. "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."

Hughes has said previously there are many facts of the case that have yet to be presented.

Galligan also said there are many unanswered questions surrounding what has been reported so far. If he were defending Bates, he said, he would ask about the possibility of the kids somehow getting into a hot car themselves.

"You definitely will want to see evidence about how long it takes for the heat of that car to become lethal," he said.

A 2007 Associated Press report found that charges were filed in 49 percent of all vehicular hyperthermic deaths, and 81 percent resulted in convictions. Drug- and alcohol-related cases like Bates' are also rare -- occurring in only 7 percent of children's heat-related deaths in vehicles.

If convicted, Bates could face life in prison for the felony murder charge, between 15 and 25 years for aggravated child neglect, and eight and 12 years for the meth charges.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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