Flowers and ornaments are seen laid around the grave of Leland and River Bates on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013, at Moore's Chapel Cemetery in Cleveland, Tenn. Their grandmother visited the grave Friday and laid fresh flowers after their mother, Tasha Bates, was convicted of first-degree murder in the boys' hyperthermia deaths.Photo by Doug Strickland.
After months of evidence-gathering, a year of trial preparation and three days of testimony, Tasha Bates’ murder case hinged on one question, prosecutors said.
Did Bates find her unconscious sons inside her car that hot summer day, or not?
“I submit to you that makes all the difference in the world right there,” Bradley County Assistant District Attorney Stephen Hatchett told the jury. “Because if they are in that car — and I submit to you that’s where they are — what does that mean? That means the defendant did not tell the truth. Why did she not tell the truth? Because of meth.”
Bates’ blue Toyota Corolla intersected two parallel stories that unfurled in the courtroom about what happened on June 28, 2012, that left 3-year-old River and 5-year-old Leland dead from heatstroke.
Prosecutors alleged that Bates made meth in her home and smoked it. They claimed she was asleep inside on that 101-degree day, leaving the boys unattended until she woke up and discovered them inside the car.
The boys would have had to have been unable to get out of the hot car for their body temperatures to soar to the levels doctors later recorded, a medical examiner said.
But through the trial, Bates didn’t change a fragment of her story: She had done meth before, but not that day, she said. She had no knowledge of meth-making activities at her home. She had been playing with the boys outside that morning before leaving them to go inside and clean for an hour. She later came out to look for the boys and found them lying in the yard.
“They could have been playing in the car, but that’s not where I found them,” she said as attorneys grilled her on the witness stand Thursday.
Appealing to the jury, Public Defender Richard Hughes acknowledged that Bates may have lied about certain things in the investigation, but not the most important things. She would not have knowingly put her children in such a dangerous situation, he argued.
It took the jury just two hours to level the heaviest judgment possible on Bates: guilty of first-degree murder.
McMinnville attorney Michael Galligan — who 20 years ago defended another young woman whose little boys died of overheating in a car — was taken aback by the speed and the severity with which the verdict was delivered.
He said he believes the jury was reacting to what they perceived as a web of lies.
“If she comes in and is honest and says, ‘I was taking some drugs and I shouldn’t have been doing them — I was scared, I got them out of the car, I’m sorry’ — then probably it’s more like second-degree, or something else,” he said. “But the jury obviously believed she was a liar. And a jury has little to no sympathy if they think you lied. Especially when two children are dead.”
An average of 38 children die each year from being trapped in overheated cars, according to data gathered by San Francisco meteorologist Jan Null, who specializes in such cases and was a witness during the Bates trial.
A 2007 study conducted by The Associated Press found that charges were filed in 49 percent of all vehicular hyperthermic deaths, and 81 percent of those resulted in convictions.
In Galligan’s earlier case, the mother — who had been drinking in a hotel while her boys were in the car — was convicted of aggravated child neglect.
Galligan said he believes Bates has a good shot at getting a reduced conviction through an appeal, which Hughes says his office will be pushing for.
Bates’ family is pinning their hopes on that, too.
The convicted mother is also a daughter.
Bates’ family drove from all over the region and camped out for long days in the hard benches of the Bradley County Justice Center.
“Tasha has been lucky to have a very supportive family,” said Hughes. “They have been here for her since the day everything started.”
As several family members took the stand in her defense, they explained how Bates had a rough childhood, but was the “best mother she knew how to be.” They said they had no knowledge of any drug problem. They recounted how devastated Bates was at the boys’ deaths.
Her aunt, Tracy Honey, explained how she was indignant that investigators detained her niece for questioning while one boy was dying in a hospital.
At one point, Hatchett interjected: As a mother, he asked Honey, would it bother you to find out that Tasha had lied about the boys?
“Yes,” she said. “Yes it would.”
But the verdict was more than many family members could bear. Bates’ sister fled the courtroom in tears as soon as the jury had left the room, and as other shocked family members began to file out slowly, Honey stood up and asked loudly, “Your Honor, can we at least give her a hug?”
The judge said no.
The convicted daughter is still a mother.
It was never mentioned during the trial, but Bates has one surviving son.
Her oldest boy, Skyler, turns 10 this week and has lived with his paternal grandmother, Linda Bates, in Cleveland for years.
After the verdict Thursday evening, Linda Bates fought tears as she struggled with how she would tell Skyler, who has cerebral palsy, that he has lost his mother as well as his brothers.
She ended up telling him the news before school Friday. She explained how dangerous and controlling drugs can be. They talked about Skyler being an advocate to help fight drug use. She explained how important it is to always tell the truth.
“I understand she’s fighting for her life,” she said “But everybody in there knew she was lying — they couldn’t have not. She could be in prison and still have peace if she is honest with herself about what happened to the boys.”
When River and Leland were buried, Linda Bates said she would return to the gravesite the day their mother’s trial ended. The truth would have finally come out at that point. There would be some kind of justice, some absolution. She would release balloons in a sign of celebration.
But after Thursday, there’s nothing to celebrate, she says. The complete, true story has yet to be told.
She’s been praying that Tasha would get whatever verdict she needed to change her life, but Thursday’s verdict felt wrong — too harsh, with too little room for redemption.
“But who am I to say this isn’t what she needs for that to happen?” she said. “It isn’t up to me.”
On Friday, Linda Bates visited the little boys’ graves in a Bradley County churchyard. She took no balloons, just two bouquets she placed under the heart-shaped headstone with a lamb engraved at the center.
“You deserved so much more,” she told them.
Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at email@example.com or 423-757-6673.