Currently The Leader's managing editor, Echo Day is an 11-year veteran of the paper.

Jaleah and Amaya Jones deserved better than what they got out of life. 

If you ask assistant district attorney Walt Freeland, they didn’t have much of a chance.

Last week their grandmother, Linda Dunavant, was convicted of killing them after setting a couch on fire in her house. During her testimony, she repeatedly called it “a tragic accident.”

“This is after Linda Dunavant had a night of partying,” Freeland said during his closing statements while he held the morgue photos of the girls. “It’s not a tragic accident, it’s a tragedy.”

It’s a tragedy that could have been prevented.

The youngest, had her grandmother not killed by setting a fire, would have turned two in September and, because she was three months younger than him, could have been in my son’s class at daycare. Her vocabulary, if she were still alive, would be exploding right now, she’d be working on two-year molars and she would likely be mimicking the actions of the adults around her. She would probably love books and playing with baby dolls and sweeping the floor with her toy broom. She might enjoy riding tricycles and blowing bubbles and playing in the play house and sneaking a piece of candy out of the daycare director’s drawer, like my son does every afternoon. 

But she and her sister, who was only a year older, were born into an awful set of circumstances with awful adults taking care of them. 

After getting high and drunk all night, according to testimony, their mother dropped them off with their grandmother and two men who had done the same thing. This was not an uncommon set of circumstances, Dunavant told the courtroom, and said she knew her daughter would not return that night.

“She said she would but I knew better. Once she had that money in her hand and she’d been drinkin’ and druggin’ all day, I knew she wouldn’t be back.”

Dunavant was such a responsible caregiver that while they were sleeping in the back bedroom, she was in the living room, just feet away, lighting a couch on fire to scare her boyfriend into leaving the house with his friend. The adults, under the influence of alcohol and crack cocaine, thought they’d extinguished the fire with a can of Bud Light, but they didn’t. An expert witness said between 50 and 80 minutes passed with no one noticing the house catching fire until it was too late. 

Because she repeatedly lied to investigators and to the jury, nobody knows where Dunavant was that night and nobody likely will, but she wasn’t cooking any hamburgers like she said she was. 

A fire burned in the living room, the sleeping babies inhaled almost double the fatal amount of carbon monoxide and they lost their lives. In a recorded interview she gave to police a month later, she told them very matter-of-factly that had she gone back into the house, she’d have died, too. 

And that was the Linda Dunavant we saw on the stand: matter-of-fact when it came to the girls, but emotional when it came to herself. She seemed to sob through testimony, but, as Freeland pointed out, where were the actual tears? 

It was difficult to listen to Dunavant’s neighbor Michael Rowand and Covington officer James Perry talk about using an old wheelchair to break the window in an attempt to find the girls. 

It was difficult to listen to Covington officer John Covington talk about the girls’ eyes being glassy and their bodies lifeless, knowing there was no signs of life. 

It was difficult to listen to Covington firefighter/AEMT Dee Wallace and firefighter/paramedic Baker McCool describe the sweep pattern, hear McCool testify that he thought baby Amaya was a doll he needed to move before going further in his search and see Dee’s face as he testified about the moment he found Jaleah between the mattress and the wall.

And as difficult as the testimony was, it was made even more so by the absence of their parents in the courtroom.

“They didn’t have a grieving mother here to say, ‘Those are my babies and they’re dead,’” Freeland asked during closing statements. “Where is she?! Where is Jessica Cunningham?”

Freeland continued by saying they were alive, they were healthy and they had a chance. 

“Not much of a chance, because Jessica Cunningham was their mother and not much of a chance because Linda Dunavant was their grandmother, but they had a chance. They had a chance.”

As heartbreaking as their deaths were, it was gut-wrenching to know that in neither life nor in death did they have the support they deserved from their parents and grandmother. 

What a way to live and die.

Lisa DeLancey is a staff writer for The Leader, focusing on education. She is a 2016 graduate of The University of Memphis. 

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