Shetarra James’ murder trial got under way today in Solano County Superior Court, a year and a half after the Fairfield apartment fire that claimed the lives of her three young children and niece. James, 25, faces four counts of second-degree murder and child abuse leading to the death of her three children — 4-year-old Robert Charles Jr., 2-year-old Nevaeh Nunn, and 1-year-old Keviana Morgan — and her sister Latisha James’daughter, 2-year-old Natalie Rogers.
Solano County Deputy District Attorney Karen Jensen told the jury during opening statements this morning that James and her sister neglected the children the night of April 28, 2010, leaving them alone in their Fairfield apartment on Delaware Street where lit candles were burning to replace the electricity that had been shut off for days. James and her sister headed to a nearby parking lot where they stayed for roughly 30 minutes without returning to the apartment, Jensen said.
In addition to leaving the children in harm’s way, Jensen said the defendant lied multiple times about what had caused the fire when investigators questioned her at the hospital later that night. Defense attorney Amy Morton said police began questioning her client about the fire moments after she had learned of her son’s death, affecting James’ responses.
Morton painted James as a loving parent who was “the best mother she knew how to be” in spite of a difficult childhood and an abusive relationship with the father of her youngest child. She said the young mother “had no idea that something horrible would happen” when she left the apartment for a short period of time. Jurors also heard testimony this morning from half a dozen first responders who were dispatched to the fire, all of whom described a chaotic scene with thick smoke, flames and people yelling.
Fairfield fire Capt. John Sturdee testified this morning that he found the three youngest children inside the apartment, their bodies charred and “unsalvageable.” He told jurors how he scooped up James’ 4-year-old, who was severely burned but who appeared to have a slight chance of survival. The boy later died at the hospital. James, who was wearing a black sweatshirt in court today with her hair in cornrows and pulled back in a bun, wept quietly as Sturdee testified.
Jurors heard more graphic details about the blaze’s effects on the children’s bodies from Susan Hogan, M.D., a forensic pathologist who performed their autopsies. Hogan said today that they had suffered from third degree burns, charred skin and tissue and that each died due to a combination of thermal injuries and smoke inhalation.
A paramedic who had attempted to revive the 4-year-old boy the day of the fire was visibly shaken as he recalled the child’s injuries from the witness stand today, at one point pausing to regain his composure. Brad Martin, a former Fairfield fire captain who headed the fire investigation testified this afternoon that the blaze was accidental, caused by a falling candle that set fire to Charles’ sleeve. Panicking, the boy ran around the apartment’s living room, spreading the flames, he said. Martin held up the ragged remains of the boy’s plaid, button-up shirt, which the prosecution introduced as evidence, pointing out the fabric that had been consumed by the fire.
After jurors filed out of the courtroom this afternoon, James sobbed audibly as she looked at photos of her children’s remains furnished by the prosecution. Morton comforted her client before James was escorted out of court. The trial is set to continue in Fairfield tomorrow, with additional testimony from Martin, law enforcement officers and James’ former neighbors, Jensen said. She said the trial is expected to end by Nov. 18.
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