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What Determines if a Parent is Charged With Murder if Their Child Dies in Hot Car?

By Aaron Crowe

When a child dies in the backseat of a hot car because their parent forgot they were there, the decision to charge the parent with murder, or any crime, isn’t consistent, according to an analysis by a child advocacy group of heat-related child fatalities in cars.

A felony murder is rare in such cases. That’s what Justin Ross Harris is charged with by Georgia police in the June 18 death of his son, 22-month-old son Cooper Harris, for allegedly leaving him in an SUV for seven hours.

A murder charge is more likely to be reduced to misdemeanor aggravated manslaughter, or abuse and neglect of a child because defendants are likely to take plea offers, says Amber Rollins, director at KidsAndCars.org, a nonprofit child safety group. “We don’t see a lot of prison time,” with many getting probation, Rollins says.

Half of parents charged with crime

An analysis by the group of nearly 500 heat-related child deaths in cars from 1968 to 2013 found that half of the parents are charged with a crime, Rollins says. Of those arrested and charged, 60 percent were convicted of a crime such as child abuse, child neglect or negligent homicide. About 30 percent had no charges filed.

“There’s really no rhyme or reason to why they would be charged or not charged,” she says.

Harris, 33, researched online what temperature is needed for a child to die in a hot car, according to police warrants cited in an Alabama newspaper. The warrants don’t say when the Internet searches took place. His wife, Leanna Harris, also told police she researched the same topics. She hasn’t been charged with a crime.

Level of intent weighed

The key issue in whether a parent is charged with murder is the level of intent needed for a murder charge, says Thomas J. Simeone, a lawyer in Washington, D.C. Every state defines murder, manslaughter and similar crimes differently, Simeone says, and may have different names for the offenses and a different level of intent.

“Some require intent to kill,” he says. “Others go so low as to negligence, but even then usually require more than simply negligence.”

Intent in a traditional murder case may be straightforward, but can be more complicated in determining if a parent intended to kill their child. “Is the parent truly evil or simply neglectful?” Simeone asks.

Coroner’s ruling important

A child’s death in a hot car might also not be listed as a homicide by the coroner, making it difficult to prosecute, says Stephen Richey, a former deputy coroner who lives in Indianapolis.

The deaths aren’t listed as homicides as they would with any other form of child abuse, Richey says. “It’s a major oversight in the legal system because such deaths are not — at least in most jurisdictions — strictly defined as something that has to be listed as a homicide,” he says.

A fair number of coroners, when presented with a case that can be interpreted a number of ways — such as accidental vs. homicide — may tend to go for the option that’s less problematic for the family, Rickey says.

“This is probably to minimize the risk to their reelection campaigns that might result from provoking the ire of the community who may side with what they perceive as a ‘grieving mother’ after a ‘simple accident,’” he says.

Why parents don’t think to check

Cars can get hot quickly. When the outside temperature is 90 degrees, the temperature inside a car can get to 109 degrees in 10 minutes. Even mild temperatures can lead to death during an extended period of time inside a car.

The child advocacy group’s stance is that because most parents who leave their child in a hot car do it unintentionally and aren’t aware of it, charging them with a crime “is not going to do anything to prevent this,” Rollins says.

Rear-facing car seats are required until age 2, making the seat look the same whether a baby is sitting in it or not.

Checking the back seat for their child may not be in the forefront of many parents’ minds after driving to work on auto-pilot.

“Why would you worry about that? You’re not a bad parent. You’re not a criminal,” Rollins says.

 

Aaron Crowe is a journalist who covers the auto industry for CheapCarInsurance.net.