Is It a Crime?

This unsettling and thought-provoking story from the Washington Post has been all over the Internet recently.

The charge in the courtroom was manslaughter, brought by the Commonwealth of Virginia. No significant facts were in dispute. Miles Harrison, 49, was an amiable person, a diligent businessman and a doting, conscientious father until the day last summer — beset by problems at work, making call after call on his cellphone — he forgot to drop his son, Chase, at day care. The toddler slowly sweltered to death, strapped into a car seat for nearly nine hours in an office parking lot in Herndon in the blistering heat of July.

It was an inexplicable, inexcusable mistake, but was it a crime? That was the question for a judge to decide. …

“Death by hyperthermia” is the official designation. When it happens to young children, the facts are often the same: An otherwise loving and attentive parent one day gets busy, or distracted, or upset, or confused by a change in his or her daily routine, and just… forgets a child is in the car. It happens that way somewhere in the United States 15 to 25 times a year, parceled out through the spring, summer and early fall. The season is almost upon us.

Two decades ago, this was relatively rare. But in the early 1990s, car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could kill children, and they recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car; then, for even more safety for the very young, that the baby seats be pivoted to face the rear. If few foresaw the tragic consequence of the lessened visibility of the child . . . well, who can blame them? What kind of person forgets a baby?

The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.

Last year it happened three times in one day, the worst day so far in the worst year so far in a phenomenon that gives no sign of abating.

The facts in each case differ a little, but always there is the terrible moment when the parent realizes what he or she has done, often through a phone call from a spouse or caregiver. This is followed by a frantic sprint to the car. What awaits there is the worst thing in the world.


16 thoughts on “Is It a Crime?

  1. shani-o March 12, 2009 at 12:15 pm Reply

    That article was an amazing piece of journalism.

    My first thought is that it’s ‘safer’ to prosecute all of these cases because there are parents (unlike the ones discussed here) who have a history of neglect, or who leave their children in the car for shorter periods of time on purpose. But the idea of piling a court case on top of the excruciating guilt for a parent who truly had a lapse is appalling.

  2. Winslowalrob March 12, 2009 at 12:15 pm Reply

    Terrible story (though the Harris thing was bloody awful too, not that I am trying to get a competition going or anything) but christ this raises so many issues of morality, responsibility and justice that it is worth a book. I personally think that intent always matters (and so does the United States criminal justice system vis a vis manslaughter versus murder), and honestly the knowledge that you killed your own child is punishment enough (what, pray tell, will the state actually get out of sending Harrison to jail?). Yet my position of the importance of intent generally puts me at odds with a lot of my progressive brethren in regards to a lot of other crimes and injustices (cough cough racism) that it is a tough sell all around. Jail will not bring back back Harrison’s son, nor will it reform Harrison, nor punish him anymore than he is being punished already.

  3. Thea March 12, 2009 at 2:07 pm Reply

    What a horrible and sad story. But I dunno, the fact of the matter is that someone died. Usually a person responsible for the death of another is always penalised by law, no matter how the person died, no matter the intent of the person responsible, and no matter the relationship between the victim and perpetrator.

    (@Wislowalrob I’m suspicious of intent-based defenses, for the same reason.)

    In order to argue that this isn’t a crime, we’d have to re-evaluate completely how we persecute and define “crimes.” Which actually isn’t a bad idea…

  4. quadmoniker March 12, 2009 at 2:36 pm Reply

    I agree that this is a question for a jury. It’s clearly not always murder, but whether something like this is something ranging from negligent homicide to manslaughter is only answerable on a case-by-case basis. It must be awful to go through, but trials are awful things for everyone to go through. Otherwise safe drivers who kill someone through one lapse in judgement can be prosecuted, etc. I don’t think we should think about these things any differently just because it’s the parent who does it.

  5. cindylu March 12, 2009 at 3:09 pm Reply

    I agree that this is something that is case by case. However, I just found it horrifying that prosecutors would take the time and energy to charge the parents with murder or manslaughter. It seems that they’ve already had the worse punishment imaginable.

    However, I disagree with Balfour’s claim that this is always an accident, should not be prosecuted like a crime and is on car-makers to include better safety mechanisms. Well, I disagree with the last one. If there is clear signs of neglect, then sure that’s a crime and should be prosecuted. However, I think there needs to be some education about how this happens. Parents know about all kinds of other dangers to their children and should know about the slim (but real) possibility that this can happen. Safety features would be great too, but even those are not fail proof (see: the man whose motion detector alarm went off 3 times, but he didn’t go out to the car to investigate as he saw no one near the car when he checked through a window).

  6. -k- March 12, 2009 at 9:49 pm Reply

    put me down for “dead baby is punishment enough.”

    (perhaps irrelevantly, the drunk driver who killed my cousin’s brother-in-law got two years. that shit is *not* manslaughter.)

  7. Scott March 12, 2009 at 10:07 pm Reply

    Why does anyone care how about how bad the dad feels? His negligence led to the death of his child whom he was legally responsible for. What about the kid, is his life any less valuable in the eyes of the law? How old would the child have to be before he gets any legal protection?

  8. Winslowalrob March 13, 2009 at 12:49 am Reply

    Please allow me some time on the ol’ soapbox… *clears throat*. While I am not going to write the book on justice (thank god, I do not really know that much about it), but basically you have to look at the situation through both the eyes of the state and the eyes of a hypothetical just being (where I assume we all think we are the latter). If the state prosecutes the dad, then by definition it was a criminal act and the time in jail serves the needs for justice. Since none of us have any sort of concentrated state power (unless Obama comments on this blog… you never know) lets throw that out of the way because that discussion is moot. Rather we have to figure out how we want justice to be carried out IF we had the power to choose. This leads us back to what we conceive of as justice. If, for example, you think that in a society of laws, those that break said laws should have their citizenship basically revoked for a period of years (or until they are dead, whatever) then you have to figure out under what circumstances breaking laws lands your ass in the slammer (and it seems that loss of life is a pretty standard yardstick). At that point, you gotta figure out what purpose an institution like jail actually serves; rehabilitation, deterrent, punishment, or some combination of all three, and then figure out how sending a person to jail actually serves whatever cause you champion. If its about rehab, does anyone think this guy is going to do it again? If it is about deterrence, the article clearly points out that no one is safe from having a brain fart and tougher laws or sentencing this guy is not going stop individuals from screwing up at a terrible time with tragic consequences. If it is about punishment, then yeah, his internal suffering should count, and I fail to see how sending him to jail helps anyone. I mean, christ, if this sort of stuff is prosecutable how long before the republicans start trying to get women and doctors thrown in jail for abortions (they try to do it already if the pipe bombs do not work, to be sure, but I do not want to give them anymore rope). I am not going to get all Angela Davis and say we should abolish jails altogether, but I do not see how any sane society would take this dude to jail and view it as a just act. Imma get off the box now.

    • Scott March 13, 2009 at 10:03 am Reply

      So what is your point? You seem to say that if the perpetrator feels remorse then the state should accept that and the victim (or their family) should be satisfied? In that case every prep’s eye will be flowing with crocodile tears. What if they kid that was killed didn’t belong to that dad but was the neighbors kid, instead. Some people’s argument for no punishment seems to be based on the fact that the dad killed his own kid and feels bad about it thus inflicting his own punishment. Does the age of the kid matter? Can I run over my 15 year and get off b/c I feel bad enough about it?

      • shani-o March 13, 2009 at 11:53 am Reply

        Scott, you’re missing the point. The article isn’t about people who were willfully negligent of their children and now feel bad about it. This article is about parents who were devoted to their kids and had what is essentially a malfunction in their memory. They each had a day where all the stars aligned and the checks and balances they had in place didn’t work. These people honestly thought their children were safe and sound, right where they were supposed to be.

        Now, in reference to running over a child, that’s a really flippant comment to make. My cousin’s husband hit and killed his stepson while backing out of the driveway 2 years ago. He had told the boy to go in the house and get ready for school, and was under the impression that that’s where he was, not knowing that he was behind their SUV when he pulled out. He wasn’t charged with a crime. It was not about ‘getting off because he felt bad.’ There would simply be no purpose in charging and prosecuting him because it wasn’t a crime. And that’s the question that this story is posing. (And by the way, if you ever have the opportunity to look into the eyes of someone who has been through that situation, I doubt you’ll toss off a comment like that again.)

        I do think that it’s problematic to say that ‘a dead child is punishment enough’ because that assumes that the parent deserves punishment for making a mistake.

        • Scott March 13, 2009 at 12:31 pm Reply

          No, I don’t think I miss the point. I don’t think that a faulty memory makes a person less culpable for their actions. That is why there is the category of involuntary manslaughter where there’s no intention to kill or cause serious injury, but death is due to recklessness or criminal negligence.

          My hypothetical is not meant to be flippant but is meant to slightly change the facts to see if people’s answers will change or if they stay consistent. Just as when I asked if the dad forgot his neighbors kid would that make a difference. In the case of you cousin’s husband, the DA might have decided not to prosecute him but that doesn’t mean that his actions didn’t meet the legal standard for prosecution.

          • shani-o March 13, 2009 at 12:43 pm Reply

            Well, my inital comment still stands… it’s safest to prosecute all of these cases, because there is such a thing as willful negligence and a court case may be the best way to decide it.

            But I don’t agree that ‘punishment’ is the right answer in the cases presented in the article. What does it do, exactly? Is it supposed to be a deterrent from having a failure of memory? Is it rehabilitation? How do you ‘rehabilitate’ a parent who truly did the worst thing in the world… to their child and to themselves? That’s the difference between this and manslaughter, in my opinion (but obv I’m no legal scholar).

            Maybe a fundamental difference here is that you don’t think intent matters, and I do.

            • G.D. March 13, 2009 at 12:52 pm Reply

              I think he is acknowledging the import of intent (hence him suggesting manslaughter charges versus murder), he just doesn’t think it’s the *only* thing that matters.

  9. quadmoniker March 13, 2009 at 12:56 pm Reply

    Scott is right. I think people are conflating prosecution with conviction. There are many crimes in which negligence is enough to bring the case to court. Just because a jury disagreed in the Balfour cases doesn’t mean the prosecutor was necessarily wrong to bring it to trial. There are plenty of instances in which an otherwise good person makes a fatal mistake and they are required to answer for it in court. We don’t let that person’s presumed regret get them off the hook in those cases because we as a society have decided that sometimes that is not enough. People are thinking about this differently because it’s a parent.

    At the same time, it’s also within prosecutorial discretion to not bring the case to trial, and there are facts and circumstances that lead to that decision as well. So we can’t prejudge in those cases, either.

    This is completely different from the Harris case. In this case, an obviously grieving mother never contests the facts of what she did. Whether we determine that to be criminal in one way or another is up to a jury.

    • shani-o March 13, 2009 at 1:01 pm Reply

      I don’t disagree with this, but are you saying that it’s up to the D.A. to decide if it’s a crime? Or is it up to the D.A. to decide if it’s a crime worth prosecuting?

      Also: “People are thinking about this differently because it’s a parent.”

      This is true, but do you think it’s wrong to do so?

      • quadmoniker March 13, 2009 at 1:32 pm Reply

        Yes. It’s not wrong to feel more sympathy for them. And it’s not wrong to say that children are more vulnerable. But it’s wrong to treat the facts of the case, or the circumstances that might excuse them from any criminal wrongdoing, in any different way just because we think of the parent-child relationship in a much different way from any other.

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