Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Words fail

There's just no resolution for this sort of horror:

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.

Once, at one of my old jobs, we were loudly debating this very issue in the newsroom. A woman in Texas had absent-mindedly left her toddler in the car on a hot afternoon, went about her business, and the worst thing that can happen happened.

More than anything, I remember my former co-workers arguing that this simply could not happen to them. Not at all.

I just remember thinking - mostly sarcastically - "Really?"

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. ...

... There may be no act of human failing that more fundamentally challenges our society's views about crime, punishment, justice and mercy. According to statistics compiled by a national childs' safety advocacy group, in about 40 percent of cases authorities examine the evidence, determine that the child's death was a terrible accident -- a mistake of memory that delivers a lifelong sentence of guilt far greater than any a judge or jury could mete out -- and file no charges. In the other 60 percent of the cases, parsing essentially identical facts and applying them to essentially identical laws, authorities decide that the negligence was so great and the injury so grievous that it must be called a felony, and it must be aggressively pursued.

My heart aches for these people and their families. I can not even begin to understand their pain.


Anonymous said...

I think declaring that anything, especially that type of situation, could NEVER happen to you took a lot of audacity from your coworkers to proclaim. I did a story like that once, and the kid was asleep in the backseat. Parent forgot, went on with their day, etc. But yeah, it's completely heartwrenching.

blackink said...

From the story, David Diamond, a professor of molecular physiology at the University of South Florida, says: "The quality of prior parental care seems to be irrelevant," he said. "The important factors that keep showing up involve a combination of stress, emotion, lack of sleep and change in routine, where the basal ganglia is trying to do what it's supposed to do, and the conscious mind is too weakened to resist."

Also from the story: "There is no consistent character profile of the parent who does this to his or her child. The 13 who were interviewed for this story include the introverted and extroverted; the sweet, the sullen, the stoic and the terribly fragile."

The evidence is so overwhelming against the "never" aspect of this sort of tragedy. It's unlikely, but that doesn't mean it's impossible.