GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. — Jurors delivered a split verdict Friday for a western Colorado woman whose two sons died of overheating after she left them in a running SUV last winter.
They acquitted Heather Jensen of criminally negligent homicide but found her guilty of child abuse resulting in death and false reporting.
Prosecutors said 2-year-old William and 4-year-old Tyler died of hyperthermia after Jensen left them in her SUV with the motor running and the heater on in late November 2012 while she had sex and smoked marijuana in another vehicle nearby.
Jensen’s husband had died in a car crash less than two months earlier.
During the trial, Jensen’s lawyer described her as a lonely widow trying to protect her children. Prosecutors portrayed her as selfish and a liar.
Mesa County forensic pathologist Rob Kurtzman testified that the circumstances around the boys’ deaths were “very unusual, extraordinary.” He said there are only six documented cases of children dying of hyperthermia of cars in the winter in the United States, including the Jensen brothers.
Jensen’s lawyer, Thea Reiff, said the Palisade woman could not have foreseen the risk of leaving her sons in the vehicle.
“You may hold her responsible for these deaths, but that’s not the standard for criminal negligence,” Reiff said in closing arguments, according to The Daily Sentinel. “The guilt is something that Ms. Jensen will live with for the rest of her life. Don’t compound this tragedy with an unfounded conviction.”
Prosecutor Rich Tuttle countered that Jensen acted unreasonably and put her boys in a situation that threatened their health and lives. During his closing statement, Tuttle implored jurors to think of William and Tyler.
“We’re asking you to value them, to honor their lives and give them justice,” he said.
It wasn’t immediately clear what kind of sentence she could face. A conviction on all the charges would have meant a sentence of up to 24 years in prison.
According to authorities, on Nov. 27, 2012, Jensen strapped her sons into car seats in the back of her SUV without coats and drove to Grand Mesa east of Grand Junction to meet a male friend.
She then left the boys in the vehicle for more than 90 minutes while she and the man talked, smoked and got into his truck to have sex. However, the prosecution and defense disagree on how much of that time the SUV’s heater was on, The Denver Post reported.
Jensen later called 911 to report that Tyler was barely breathing and William was unconscious, not breathing and had no pulse. William was pronounced dead at the scene, while Tyler died later at a hospital.
Tests done on the SUV showed the temperature inside could have reached 140 degrees, the Post reported.