After tearful pleas for leniency by her husband, a 40-year-old Simi Valley mother was sentenced to probation Thursday for leaving her two young sons in a sweltering minivan where they died last summer.
Marlene Heath had faced up to 12 years in prison after pleading no contest last fall in the Aug. 4 deaths of her sons, 3-year-old Jake and his 13-month-old brother Dylan.
Heath told police that she drank a bottle of wine, fell asleep in her bedroom and found the children strapped in their car seats four hours later.
During her sentencing hearing Thursday, Phillip Heath, the defendant's husband, pleaded for mercy before Superior Court Judge Bruce A. Clark. Heath struggled to maintain his composure as he described his wife as a loving mother and spouse who had long fought to overcome alcoholism.
"No father could have loved his two children like I loved my two boys," Heath said. "Marlene was there 24 hours a day, seven days a week." But prosecutor Susan Aramesh demanded that the judge send a strong message to other parents of young children, saying that Heath's actions directly led to the deaths of her children.
"The two victims are not here," Aramesh told Clark. "It's them who died from the heat. They could not get help from anyone."
Despite the prosecutor's description of the "torturous death" inflicted on the two young children by their mother, the judge decided that a prison sentence was not in order.
Clark said he was swayed by defense statements submitted to the court describing Heath as a near-desperate alcoholic who had managed to emerge from an abyss of binge-drinking and blackouts since her sons' deaths to start leading a productive life.
Even so, the judge said, setting her free on probation "was one of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make. What thinking person would ever lock her children in her car?"
"It's a tragic situation," Clark said as a packed courtroom waited for his ruling. "But it would not be a furtherance of justice to send her to prison."
His announcement was met with a loud chorus of cheers and applause from those in the gallery as well as many of the jailhouse defendants awaiting their hearings.
Heath was ordered back to court Feb. 21 to learn the specific terms of her probation.
Afterward, Phillip Heath said Clark's ruling was correct and his two sons "are up in heaven right now jumping up and down."
Dressed in a black business suit and white blouse, Marlene Heath embraced her husband and several friends before leaving the courtroom.
She was surrounded by nearly a dozen supporters as she left the courthouse with her head down.
Heath, who is now a full-time resident at a Ventura drug and alcohol treatment facility, declined to comment before being led away to a waiting van.
According to a search warrant affidavit, Heath told police that she purchased four bottles of wine on Aug. 3 and later drank one or two bottles.
The next morning, she began drinking again, consuming one bottle of wine.
Heath, a Kinko's employee, left for a company picnic in Ventura about 1 p.m., but turned back. She estimated she pulled into the driveway of her Ralston Avenue home about 2 p.m.
According to the affidavit, she left the boys strapped in their child safety seats with the windows rolled up and went into the house to use the bathroom. She told investigators she remembers unlocking the door, but nothing after that.
Heath found her children dead inside the minivan four hours later. The two boys died of hyperthermia.
The temperature outside was nearly 90 degrees.
A blood test taken six hours after Heath's last drink registered 0.17% blood-alcohol level, more than twice the legal limit for driving.
Following Thursday's hearing, Aramesh expressed disappointment at the judge's ruling.
"If she had been pulled over while she was driving around drunk she would have received more jail time than she did for killing her two children," Aramesh said.
"I guarantee if a baby-sitter killed [the Heath children], they would have been asking for prison."