FAIRFIELD (CBS SF) – A Fairfield woman will not serve any more jail time for the deaths of her three young children and niece in an apartment fire in 2010, a judge ruled Friday.

Calling her role in the April 28, 2010 fire a “terrible judgment error,” Solano County Superior Court Judge Peter Foor sentenced 25-year-old Shetarra James Friday morning to 10 years of felony probation.

A jury convicted James on Nov. 17, 2011 of four counts of involuntary manslaughter and four counts of felony child endangerment.

James was set to be released Friday from Solano County Jail, where she has spent the last two years, defense attorney Amy Morton said.

Prosecutor Karen Jensen Friday morning asked the court for a 24-year state prison sentence for James.

During the trial, Jensen said it was James’ negligent decision to leave her three young children, Robert Charles Jr., 4, Nevaeh Nunn, 2, and Keviana Morgan, 1, and her niece, 2-year-old Natalie Rogers in their enclosed Fairfield apartment with lit candles that caused their deaths.

Foor also heard from five people who requested leniency for the defendant, including two jurors in the case and mental health experts who had worked with James.

“In my opinion, she does not present a danger to anyone,” said Pat Renfro, a mental health counselor who has met with James multiple times in jail. “I think it would be in her best interest and not a conflict for the safety of the community for Shetarra to live in the community and be a productive citizen.”

Those who spoke for James Friday said she has already suffered the ultimate punishment of losing her children.

But the prosecution urged the court to focus on the conduct that led to James’ conviction rather than on the loss she has suffered.

Moments before handing down the sentence, the court also heard from James herself, who tearfully read letters she had written to the four young children who perished in the blaze.

“Mommy is truly heartbroken for the mistake that she made that cost you your life,” James said, reading aloud to the court a message to her son, Robert Charles.

She wept as she echoed those sentiments and recalled memories of the children in letters to Nevaeh, Keviana and Natalie.

The judge said he believed James’ remorse to be genuine, and disagreed that the prosecution’s proposed 24-year-sentence would be an appropriate punishment in the case.

Foor noted that James had no criminal record prior to the fire, which he said is a rarity considering her difficult upbringing, first with an abusive, drug-addicted mother and then in various homes.

He also backed the defense and doctors’ statements that the defendant’s limited cognitive abilities and neurological shortcomings led to her poor decision-making on April 28, 2010.

“I don’t think she really appreciated at the time she did this, how likely it was that a fire would start,” he said.

After the sentence was announced Friday morning, a group of James’ family members and friends outside the courtroom voiced their relief and happiness at the trial’s outcome.

“I’m just excited that she’s getting out, she’s coming home and she gets a second chance,” said Marcy James, the defendant’s sister. “We all miss the kids, but this was a really bad accident.”

Meanwhile, Jensen said she respected the judge’s decision, but lamented the fact that aside from the prosecution, “the children never had anybody here to speak for them.”

Latisha James

Latisha James during a previous court appearance. (CBS)

Prosecutors in July dropped charges against James’ sister, Latisha James, who was also there during the fire, but said at the time that they still expected to prosecute her separately after Shetarra James’ trial had concluded.

Latisha James did not attend Friday’s hearing.

Under the terms of James’ probation, she cannot be alone with a minor without the supervision of a responsible adult approved by the probation department. She is also barred from leaving the state without her probation officer’s permission and is required to abstain from alcohol or drugs, the judge said.

(Copyright 2012 by CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

Comments (2)
  1. s.f. peaches says:

    If a parent lacks the mental capacity to use judgment with fire, how often is it possible for an agency or the court to intervene before there’s a tragedy?

    I’m wondering how many children are currently living with negligent or even violent parents, and whether parental entitlement supercedes the kids’ basic right to be safe.

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