The first court appearance of a woman accused of murder in the heat deaths of her two young sons left the children's family divided: one side staunchly claiming the charges are untrue, and the other side saying they wish they weren't true -- but aren't sure.
Tasha Bates, 26, has been charged with felony murder, aggravated child abuse and endangerment as well as methamphetamine-related offenses after police say her 5-year-old son, Leland, and his brother, 3-year-old River, died of heatstroke after they were left inside her car June 28.
At her arraignment Monday morning, Bradley County Criminal Court Judge Carroll Ross called Tasha Bates to the bench and read her the charges.
"Do you understand what the charges are?" he asked Bates.
"Yes," Bates answered softy.
Bates, who does not yet have an attorney, asked to be appointed a public defender. She remains in the Bradley County Jail without bond.
Her mother, Sandy Smith, said Bates has struggled in jail.
"She talks about the boys all the time, how she misses them," said Sandy Smith, flanked by her mother and sister after the hearing. "They were her whole life. She has been a mother since before she was 18. She would never do anything to hurt them."
Linda Bates, the boys' paternal grandmother, sat in a different row with the boys' father, whom Tasha Bates had recently divorced, and other family.
"Just hearing him read those charges ... murder... It makes me so sad," she said after the hearing. "I'm torn because it is so hard to see Tasha like that, but I also really want justice for those little boys."
Tasha Bates' next court date is set for Nov. 19. Linda Bates said in the meantime she is trying to protect the boys' 8-year-old brother, Skyler -- of whom she has custody -- from knowing the full scope of his mother's charges.
"He saw a picture of his mother on the TV the other day and he asked, 'Why is she wearing that orange outfit?' I just told him that's what they wear over here," Linda Bates said.
Smith said she is sure that her daughter would never do anything to harm the boys. She said River and Leland often played inside the car, and knew how to unbuckle their seat belts and open car doors.
"Before I could get my seat belt unbuckled, they'd be out of the car," said the boys' great-grandmother, Faye Ghorley.
Since the boys were found unconscious during that 101-degree afternoon, Tasha Bates has maintained that she had left the boys outside unattended for 45 minutes on a Slip'n Slide water toy and later found both lying on the ground, unmoving.
Medical examiner reports show that the boys died after their core temperatures surpassed 105 degrees, which investigators say led them to believe the boys were trapped in an enclosed space.
Investigators also have indicated that they found meth cooking materials in Tasha Bates' home, but Sandy Smith said that while her daughter may have done drugs, she never made them.
Despite their disagreement, the families share one clear connection: the grief they both feel.
"River demanded love. He'd get up in your arms and make you love him," Ghorley said. "And when Leland saw that loving, he wanted it. ... And I'd hold him in my arms and kiss him all over his face. And he'd just smile so big."
Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at email@example.com or 423-757-6673.