Arlington

Caretaker found guilty in death of disabled man left in hot SUV

Debra King, 56, faces up to two years in state prison for criminally negligent homicide and two to 20 years for injury to a disabled person.
Debra King, 56, faces up to two years in state prison for criminally negligent homicide and two to 20 years for injury to a disabled person. Tarrant County Sheriff’s Department

A Tarrant County jury on Thursday found an Arlington caretaker guilty in the death of a severely mentally disabled man who was left in a hot SUV in 2013.

Debra King, 56, was convicted on a charge of criminally negligent homicide, a state jail felony, and injury to a disabled person, a second-degree felony.

She faces up to two years in state prison for criminally negligent homicide and two to 20 years for injury to a disabled person.

State District Judge George Gallagher will sentence King after a pre-sentencing report is completed in about 60 days.

Thursday, the jury deliberated for about four hours after hearing closing arguments in the morning.

At issue was whether King was responsible in the death of Terrance Sanders, who lived under King’s care at a south Arlington group home operated by Cherry Tree Residential Services.

Sanders, 29, who was believed to have an IQ of 19, died on July 25, 2013, after King left him in an SUV parked outside the home. Another Cherry Tree worker found his body about five hours later.

King told Arlington detectives that she forgot Sanders in the car because “I was so tired.”

Her attorneys, Reagan Wynn and Jeff Kearney, argued Thursday that Sanders’ death was an accident.

“Terrance’s death was a terrible tragedy, but not all terrible tragedies are crimes,” Wynn told jurors. “Debra simply had no idea” that Sanders was still in the SUV.

‘Think about what that felt like’

Prosecutor Peter Gieseking opened his closing argument by asking jurors to imagine the inside of a hot car.

Earlier in the week, an Arlington fire captain had testified that the temperatures in the SUV probably reached 130-150 degrees.

“Think about what that felt like for the next 15 seconds,” Gieseking told jurors Thursday. “Now imagine it for a minute. Now an hour, two hours, three hours, four hours, five hours without ventilation.”

Gieseking and co-prosecutor Albert Roberts played King’s hourlong interview with police for jurors Wednesday.

She explained that on the morning of Sanders’ death she had driven him and two other disabled men to an adult day care in Grand Prairie. It was their daily routine.

She escorted two of the men into the day care and took their lunch bags inside. But she forgot to drop off Sanders, she said.

Instead, she returned to the SUV — with Sanders, who was nonverbal, still sitting in the seat behind her — and drove about 20 minutes back to the group home on Eldorado Drive.

After arriving at about 10 a.m., she finished a few household duties before going home.

About 3 p.m. an evening worker got in the CR-V to go pick up the men from the day care. The worker, Ian Hosu-Porbley, testified Tuesday that when he adjusted the rear view mirror, he saw a hand propped up against the back of his seat. He found Sanders, motionless.

Emergency personnel arrived and Sanders was pronounced dead.

‘Life-altering mistake’

“There is no doubt she made a life-altering mistake,” Wynn told jurors.

But Wynn said King did not consciously know Sanders was in the car and therefore she couldn’t have been made a “reckless” decision, one of the tests for a guilty verdict.

Kearney, King’s other attorney, made an emotional plea to jurors, sitting on a table in front of him as he delivered his closing argument.

“There’s no doubt she cared about those guys,” Kearney told the jurors, referring to Sanders and the other two men who lived at the group home. “For the last three years, she was in our hands. Her life is now in your hands.”

Roberts, in his argument, emphasized that Sanders would be alive if not for King.

“She put him in the car,” Roberts said. “There is no excuse to not let him out.”

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