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Criminally Negligent or Criminally Stupid? Mother Charged in Childrens' Deaths

03-Feb-2014

Last week, the trial began for Heather Jensen, a Colorado mother who was charged with criminally negligent homicide, child abuse resulting in death, and false reporting in the deaths of her two sons, 2-year-old William and 4-year-old Tyler.

Details of the Murder Case

William and Tyler were strapped and locked in their mother's SUV with the heater running as she left them for approximately an hour and a half as she had sex with a man in a nearby vehicle. The running heater caused temperatures inside the vehicle to reach as high as 140 degrees, causing the children to die of hyperthermia. William died that night; his older brother died of his injuries a week later.

Prosecutors paint a picture of Jensen as a selfish woman and a negligent parent who created the situation that caused her children's deaths. They say that at one point, 4-year-old Tyler opened the doors to the vehicle, but instead of addressing the needs of her children, she handed the older boy her cell phone to keep him occupied and then activated the child locks on the door so that her children could not get out and interrupt her and her male companion.

The Defense's Strategy

Jensen's defense attorney tells a different tale. In his opening statement, he calls the children's death a tragic accident, not a crime. He points to Jensen having an IQ of 76, only a few points above the designation for mental retardation. Furthermore, he says, she was a young mother reeling from the loss of her husband only two months prior. He says that, in running the heater in the vehicle, Jensen believed that she was keeping her children safe and warm in the cold November night.

Although the boys died in November, the district attorney did not file charges right away. Instead, he filed charges more than a month later. He explained that the boys' deaths were indeed accidental, and that there is no evidence of premeditation. However, he notes that criminal negligence includes accidents, and that leaving young children unattended in a locked vehicle for a prolonged period of time is certainly negligent.

Jensen's trial is expected to conclude later this week.

Oklahoma Homicide Law

In Oklahoma, "negligent homicide" is a crime that is defined under the motor vehicle code and includes DUI manslaughter. Rather than being prosecuted as negligent homicide, a case like this would likely be prosecuted as manslaughter.  A qualified manslaughter defense attorney should be brought in immediately in these circumstances.

Manslaughter is classified as either first degree manslaughter or second degree manslaughter:

Homicide is manslaughter in the first degree in the following cases: 

  1. When perpetrated without a design to effect death by a person while engaged in the commission of a misdemeanor. 
  2. When perpetrated without a design to effect death, and in a heat of passion, but in a cruel and unusual manner, or by means of a dangerous weapon; unless it is committed under such circumstances as constitute excusable or justifiable homicide. 
  3. When perpetrated unnecessarily either while resisting an attempt by the person killed to commit a crime, or after such attempt shall have failed. (21 O.S. 711)

Every killing of one human being by the act, procurement or culpable negligence of another, which, under the provisions of this chapter, is not murder, nor manslaughter in the first degree, nor excusable nor justifiable homicide, is manslaughter in the second degree. (21 O.S. 716)

No doubt, the true victims in this case are the two little boys left trapped and alone while their mother smoked pot and had sex nearby. However, evidence seems to indicate that the mother did not mean to harm her children. She is selfish and ignorant--even criminally so--but that does not make her the malicious murderer of her own children.



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