Chattanooga: Homicide charges dropped in child deaths

Chattanooga: Homicide charges dropped in child deaths

April 5th, 2011 by Chris Carroll in News

Heather Markum

Despite admitting she drank three beers before having a car wreck that killed two of her children, a weak case may keep Heather Markum out of jail.

Markum pleaded guilty Monday to child endangerment when prosecutors acknowledged they don't have enough evidence to convict her on reckless homicide. The plea came two years after a Hamilton County grand jury indicted the 34-year-old mother on the more-serious charge.

At the time of the two-car crash, much was made of the fact that Markum admitted at the scene to drinking three beers, but prosecutors on Monday admitted the difficulty of convincing a jury that a 0.03 blood alcohol level caused the death of her children.

Tennessee's legal limit is 0.08.

"The state would have a difficult time saying the act that endangered her children actually caused their deaths," Hamilton County District Attorney Leslie Longshore said in Hamilton County Criminal Court Monday.

Reckless homicide charges would have carried two to four years in jail, according to Hamilton County Judge Barry Steelman. Instead, Markum faces up to 11 months and 29 days of incarceration, probation or a combination of both.

"The defense's position has always been that it was an accident," said Jane Buffaloe, Markum's attorney.

The plea ended a saga that began in February 2008, when police said she failed to yield the right of way on a left-hand turn from Bailey Avenue onto South Willow Street in the Highland Park area.

A sport utility vehicle plowed into her Toyota Corolla's passenger side, partially ejecting her children. Her 4-month-old son, Colin, died at the scene, and her 14-year-daughter, Brooke, later died in surgery.

Markum's 6-year-old daughter survived.

On Monday, Longshore revealed that 4-month-old Colin was appropriately restrained in a car seat. Longshore said a jury could end up believing that Markum asked her 14-year-old daughter Brooke to buckle up, only to have her disobey.

Longshore also said investigators allowed the SUV to leave the scene without an inspection, despite witnesses who said its driver was speeding through a traffic light that "had just turned green."

Asked after the hearing why the district attorney's office pressed for reckless homicide without investigating both vehicles, Longshore said: "That's certainly not a question I can answer right now."

Contact Chris Carroll at ccarroll@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6610.