Relief and reckoning
Families celebrate daycare verdict
February 13, 2019
PORTALES — Dozens of pink and blue balloons took flight Tuesday from outside the Roosevelt County courthouse, one of the first light moments for anyone involved in the emotional trial that had played out in the five days before.
It was a moment of relief for many, a feeling that justice had been served on behalf of two young girls left in a hot car for almost three hours the afternoon of July 25, 2017. Yet for the former daycare pair convicted of felony child abuse charges, and for their families, it was a crushing reckoning that means up to 36 years in prison for each.
“I don’t believe that each child’s life is worth any less than that,” District Attorney Andrea Reeb told The News on Friday, referring to a forthcoming mitigated-sentence motion from Mary and Sandi Taylor’s defense attorney. “We will argue that motion strenuously. We believe the law is on our side.”
Erika Tafoya, shaking but smiling outside the court following Tuesday’s verdict, was surrounded by supporters in matching pink shirts bearing her daughter Maliyah Jones’ face with the words, “Now she flies with the butterflies ...” The balloons took that symbolism to new heights, broadcasting their handwritten messages across the open skies: We Will Never Forget, Look Before you Lock, Justice for Maliyah.
Minutes earlier, Maliyah’s father Gerret Jones and Tafoya held each other while Judge Donna Mowrer read those verdicts reached after hours of jury deliberation. Kristen Ashmore, who sat between her parents and shared a courtroom gallery pew with Tafoya, said the ruling was a relief for her but something her own daughter Aubriauna Loya still can’t quite comprehend.
“I was a nervous wreck,” Ashmore told The News regarding her testimony during the first day of trial. “I don’t really know how I kept it together, because I was really, really nervous.” She was grateful for the community support since the incident, she added.
Maliyah and Aubriauna were each under the age of 2 that ill-fated summer day when the Taylors forgot them in an SUV outside their residential daycare following an afternoon field trip. While Maliyah, 21 months, was pronounced dead that day at Roosevelt General Hospital, Aubriauna survived and left a Texas hospital soon after her second birthday. Her recovery is ongoing, prosecutors said.
The Taylors, who were handcuffed Tuesday afternoon and brought directly into custody, are scheduled for a sentencing hearing March 4. Their attorney Tye Harmon will then file an appeal, he said, maintaining the jury was misinformed as to the requirements for a conviction since his clients were unaware of their “tragic accident” but acted immediately once that changed.
“Obviously, they are emotional,” he told The News. “We understood this was a possibility, however as I’ve stated we’re very confident in the appeal process.”
Harmon next month will also request his clients be released on bond pending an appeal, which Mowrer can approve or deny based on her own assessment of the likelihood of the case being reversed. Reeb said she remains confident in the case she brought forward.
“There’s been some controversy in the community about whether they should be prosecuted or not prosecuted. I always felt that the facts were strong, I always believed that they were reckless, I always felt that if you pay someone to watch your child, that you would expect them to be watching your child,” she told The News. “Our office did a lot of investigation after the fact, after the arrest, and that’s when we started seeing all of what I believed to be serious violations of (New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department) policies.”
In researching the case, Reeb said she didn’t find many similar cases in the state or even the nation at large. In the past 20 years there have been “a total of 10 Pediatric Vehicular Heatstroke (PVH) deaths” in New Mexico, said a San Jose State University meteorologist tracking cases over the decades, and only one of those (in 2012) may have involved a daycare. Jan Null collects nationwide data on such incidents at: noheatstroke.org
“I believe this case will be some case precedent for sure, something that will be looked at for years on,” Reeb said. “I was pleased with the verdict because of the work that was put into this case, and to see how happy Kristen and Erika were was just such a great feeling that reminds me why I do this job.”