Hot car deaths: when and how parents are charged

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) – The father of a 22-month-old is being charged with murder after leaving his son strapped in the back of an SUV for more than seven hours.

Justin Ross Harris, a Tuscaloosa native, told deputies in Cobb County Georgia he went to work at around 9 a.m. on June 18, 2014 and was supposed to bring the boy to daycare, but forgot.

According to police, the temperature inside the vehicle rose to 88 degrees.

Around 4 p.m., Harris was driving home from work when he noticed that his son was in the back seat and pulled over at the Akers Mill Square shopping center on Cobb Parkway. Harris tried to perform CPR on the boy, according to a witness, but the child was pronounced dead at the scene.

Witnesses say, Harris was frantic and screaming, “What have I done?”

The severity of the charges have sparked much debate on if and how parents in these situations should be charged. A petition has surfaced online to get the charges against Harris dropped.

44 children died as a result of being left in hot cars in 2013. Three of those deaths occurred in Alabama. An 11-month-old Homewood girl died after being left in her mother’s SUV outside their family nail spa in July 2013.

In late May 2014, Jefferson County District Attorney Brandon Falls decided not to file criminal charges. Stating that, “justice wouldn’t be service in possibly sending a grieving mother to prison.”

An Army sergeant from Anniston is awaiting her fate on charges of manslaughter. Katherine Papke discovered she’d left her young son in her minivan after spending several hours at work in August of 2013.

The third death occurred in Mobile, Alabama.

Shortly after police were called to help in the search of a 4-year-old boy reported missing, he was found dead in a car parked outside of the home. It has not been determined whether anyone within the family will be charged.

Dr. John Sloan, a Criminal Justice Professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham says prosecutors carry a heavy burden.

“What they do isn’t easy,” he said.

Once police wrap up their reports and interviews, it is up to them to decide whether or not a child being left in a vehicle is a gross deviation from the expected standard of care or a tragic accident.

“They’re tired, they’re in a hurry, they’re worried about losing their job, those are all considerations that go to what was the intent of this parent when they left their child in the car and the child died,” said Sloan.

Typically, when charges are filed; such an incident results in charges of manslaughter, child abuse or criminal negligence. Charges vary based on the intent of the person responsible for the child.

Other times, says Sloan, it could be a matter of prosecutors trying to send a message.

“There may be a reason to pursue these, perhaps more aggressively, than in other times because there have been a number others kinds of incidents and it’s important for people to understand you can’t do this.”

Sloan says unless the state legislature decides to pass a law, how and whether parents are charged will continue to be on a case-by-case-basis.

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