published Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

Bradley County judge sentences Tasha Bates to two life terms in deaths of her children

  • photo
    Tasha Bates, 27, looks at her mother and grandmother while being escorted out of the courtroom after appearing before Judge Amy Reedy during a sentencing hearing at the Bradley County Criminal Courthouse on Monday. Bates received two consecutive life sentences to run concurrently with 40 years for aggravated child neglect in the overheating deaths of her two sons Leland, 5, and River, 3. and drug charges.
    Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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Was justice done in the Tasha Bates case?
  • photo
    Sandra Smith, mother of Tasha Bates, watches as her daughter's attorney Richard Hughes speaks to media after Bates was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences running concurrently with 40 years for aggravated child neglect in the overheating deaths of her two sons Leland, 5, and River, 3. and drug charges.
    Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

A tragedy that flared in scorching heat reached its culmination as weather forecasters called for snow over Bradley County.

Family members of Tasha Bates pulled their jackets close against the cold Tuesday as they walked out the doors of the county courthouse.

The frigid air only seemed to underscore the chill in the courtroom, where the 27-year-old mother sat emotionless as the judge read her sentence for murder: Not one life sentence, but two.

Bates was found guilty in August of two counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of her two boys, Leland, 5 and River, 3, who died of extreme overheating.

Their body temperatures reached at least 109 and 103 degrees inside a hot car in June 2012, though Bates repeatedly insisted on the stand that she discovered them lifeless in the yard after leaving them unsupervised for a short time.

While the jury gave Bates the heaviest possible verdict -- which automatically included life in prison -- Bates' family still trusted they would see her walk free one day. Perhaps she would be granted parole at an earlier stage, they hoped.

Bates' attorney Richard Hughes asked that Bates' life sentences be allowed to run concurrently, a proposal to which District Attorney Stephen Hatchett did not object.

"Justice can be accomplished with one life sentence," Hughes said. "That in no way diminishes the life of these children."

But Bradley County Criminal Court Judge Amy Reedy staunchly disagreed.

"These are two people that were murdered. Two people. Two murders," Reedy said before handing down her decision.

The judge said the children were "introduced into a horrible place and around horrible goings-on, and around horrible activity."

During the trial, prosecutors showed evidence of meth making at the family's trash-strewn home.

Bates was also found guilty of aggravated child neglect and of facilitating the manufacture of meth -- convictions that amounted to a 40-year prison sentence that will run concurrently with her life sentences.

Life sentences in Tennessee call for at least 51 years behind bars.

Bates is still eligible for parole, but Hughes said the consecutive nature of the sentences essentially nullifies the chance of parole within her lifetime. The convictions appeal process -- which is automatic in a life sentence -- will begin next year.

"She is effectively facing life without parole," Hughes said.

Bates' charges and her sentence fall on the harshest end of the spectrum of legal consequences parents may face after deaths like River's and Leland's.

A 2007 Associated Press review of 310 vehicular heat deaths involving children nationwide found that charges were filed against parents or caregivers in 49 percent of the deaths, and 81 percent of those resulted in convictions.

Only half of those convictions brought jail sentences -- the median sentence being two years.

The AP also found that the harshest treatment is reserved for those who intentionally left their children. On average, those people received sentences that were 5 1/2 years longer.

In sentencing Bates, Reedy said she found her to be a "dangerous offender" whose behavior indicates "little or no regard for the human life of her two boys."

But McMinnville attorney Michael Galligan -- who 20 years ago defended another young woman whose little boys died of overheating in a car -- said he believed both the jury's first-degree murder verdicts and the judge's consecutive life sentences for Bates were "excessive."

"I'm not saying she is without guilt," Galligan said. "She may have been negligent, reckless in the deaths of her children. I'm simply saying she's being punished as someone who was intending to kill their children -- when it seems clear that was never the case."

Galligan said he worried that such a sentence "diminishes the criminal justice system."

"If you're going to do something like this [to someone] who didn't intend to kill the children, what are you going to give to someone who did? You've gone almost as far as you can go."

To serve out her sentence, Bates returns to Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville -- where she has been since the jury's verdict in August.

She has had a few visitors since then. Last month, her only surviving son, Skyler, met her at a table in the cafeteria-like room. For the first time in more than a year, the 10-year-old was able to hug her and talk to her in person. He sang her "Amazing Grace."

Linda Bates, who is the mother of Tasha Bates' ex-husband and Skyler's guardian, said the family has finally started to move on after River's and Leland's deaths. The holidays are not as hard as they were last year. She hopes to help Skyler start an anti-meth campaign to keep other parents from falling into the same spiral as his mother.

But while Linda Bates always said she wanted justice for the boys, she has been one of the most vocal advocates for leniency for Tasha Bates.

Before the sentencing hearing, prosecutors asked her to write a victim impact statement. In it, Linda Bates appealed for mercy from the judge. She tried to explain to the judge that her former daughter-in-law was never taught how to be a mother, and that she was dealing with depression at the time of the deaths.

She asked the judge to consider what kind of effect it would have on Skyler to never see his mother free again.

"For Skyler I felt like I had to write it," she explained.

On Monday, she sat alone at the edge of the bench in the courtroom, and left shortly after the judge handed down her sentence.

She drove home to tell Skyler, but when she pulled in the driveway, she still had no words to explain to the boy what had happened. How to explain justice and mercy and decisions that are hard to understand.

Instead, she backed out of the driveway and drove out through the browned fields and pastures to Moore's Chapel Cemetery.

There she prayed and waited, sitting by the little boys' graves in the cold.

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

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