FAIRFIELD (CBS SF) — Jurors are weighing the fate of Shetarra James after hearing closing arguments Wednesday in the trial against the 25-year-old Fairfield woman charged with second-degree murder and felony child endangerment in the deaths of four young, unsupervised children who perished in an April 2010 apartment fire.
In a Fairfield courtroom Wednesday morning, the prosecution said James knowingly endangered her three young children and niece, exposing them to death when she left the children in their darkened Fairfield apartment with candles burning on the night of April 28, 2010.
Deputy District Attorney Karen Jensen reviewed evidence presented during the trial and fire experts’ testimony and concluded that James willfully imperiled her children — 4-year-old Robert Charles, Jr., 2-year-old Nevaeh Nunn and 1-year-old Keviana Morgan, and her niece, 2-year-old Natalie Rogers—when she left them in the small, enclosed apartment with lit candles to head to a nearby parking lot with her sister for up to 30 minutes.
The prosecutor on Wednesday refuted the defense’s recurring argument that James suffers from cognitive disabilities that affect her reasoning and make it nearly impossible for her to respond during emergency situations.
Jensen cited testimony from James’ sister, who said the 25-year-old was smart and a good mother, and reminded the jury of the defendants’ experience caring for younger children while growing up in her grandmother’s home, parenting classes she had taken and her experience working as a homeless shelter manager.
“She was responsible, and she knew how to take care of children,” the attorney said.
The prosecution said James knew better than to leave her children alone in the apartment that night, “but she decided to go outside anyway.”
Jensen asked the jury to find James guilty of second-degree murder and four charges of felony child endangerment with an enhancement due to the children’s deaths.
Defense Attorney Amy Morton told the jury Wednesday that James would never have knowingly left her children in danger and had no way of knowing when she left the Delaware Street apartment for five to 10 minutes that tragedy would strike.
“You really have to believe that Shetarra James was a monster in order to convict her of murder,” Morton said.
The defense reminded the jury that fire experts who took the witness stand during the trial testified that the fire was accidental and could not say for sure what happened during the blaze.
Morton also described James as someone who had suffered significant trauma throughout her life, from physical and sexual abuse as a child to further domestic violence as an adult, who then suffered the ultimate trauma when she lost her three beloved children at 24 years old.
“This woman here has cried in a way that knows no end and will probably cry for the rest of her life,” she said, gesturing to James, who was wearing a black, button-up sweater with her hair corn-rowed and pulled back in a bun.
At one point during Morton’s statements, the defendant bowed her head and started to cry silently.
The prosecution, however, said this case is not about James’ upbringing but about accountability for the preventable deaths of four young children.
Jensen reminded the jury that the defendant repeatedly lied to investigators, and later to reporters, about the presence of burning candles in the home.
And after finally disclosing that candles had been burning, James admitted she withheld the truth because she knew leaving the children alone with lit candles could be dangerous.
“The defendant has tried to manipulate and get out of these charges,” the prosecutor said.
Morton said that James has already been held accountable in the public eye for the deaths of her three children and niece.
“She lost her children…the only sources of love in her life,” the attorney told the jury. “She’s been blamed for many things…there is no accountability worse than what Shetarra James is going through. My hope is that you’ll let this young woman…grieve in private and live her life.”
(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)