When Kids Die in Hot Cars

Two fathers leave their young children to die in a hot car.

One is a college professor. He and his wife had struggled for years to have a child, and conceived their son through IVF. One day, after a night of being awakened by the baby, he drives to work, and completely forgets his son in the back seat.

Another worked as a horse groomer, a non-citizen, working 16 hour days, and taking care of his daughter the entire time. One day he decided to spend a few hours betting on horses after work, and left his daughter in the car.

Both have already suffered a great tragedy by losing their children. But is one more at fault than the other? Does one deserve prison time more than the other?

Well, the college professor is White, and the horse groomer is from Peru. So, the public defender background in me can tell you, just from that information, who goes to prison.

Maybe the additional fact that the college professor was at work, while the horse groomer was betting on the ponies matters. But should it? Probably not. I mean, the baby in the car doesn't know (or care) why daddy left her there.

The article also points out that the college professor had "studied parenting books," while the horse groomer presumably had less time and education for reading books, the article states that he "had no idea" a car could heat up in that way. He left the window open just an inch because he was afraid that if he left it open further, someone might take the child. Obviously he cared, he just didn't understand. His IQ was low, his defense attorney called him "borderline retarded."

In my mind, that makes the college professor more responsible. He knew, or could have known, or should have known the consequences of his actions.

Ultimately, though, the issue came down to the fact that the college professor "forgot" his son in the car, while the horse groomer made an uninformed decision to leave his daughter in the car. Why is it better to forget your child than to not understand how quickly a car can become too hot for a baby?

Because he was just forgetful, the college professor was not prosecuted. The horse groomer was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and will be deported when he finishes his term. The college professor and his wife went on to have 3 more children.

Another article points out more sentencing disparities: Sentences Vary When Kids Die in Hot Cars. The article points out that these deaths rose when laws changed to require parents to put car seats in the back seat, rather than in the front seat.

According to this article:
_Mothers are treated much more harshly than fathers. While mothers and fathers are charged and convicted at about the same rates, moms are 26 percent more likely to do time. And their median sentence is two years longer than the terms received by dads.

_Day care workers and other paid baby sitters are more likely than parents to be charged and convicted. But they are jailed less frequently than parents, and for less than half the time.

_Charges are filed in half of all cases — even when a child was left unintentionally.

In cases where parents are charged, sentences range from 20 years in prison to pretrial diversionary programs (the charges will be dismissed after a period of probation and other conditions such as parenting classes). Some judges are more creative in finding sentences that they believe fit the crime. One mother was ordered to produce a video about her ordeal to be used in parenting classes. A babysitter was ordered to pay the child's funeral expenses, make donations to the hospital that treated the child, in addition to eight months in prison.

Most creatively, one judge sentenced a father to "spend one day a year in jail for seven years and to hold an annual blood drive around the anniversary of his daughter's death."

The most important thing that can be done is to educate parents that don't ordinarily have access to parenting books and informational websites about the dangers of leaving children in a car so that parents and caregivers don't make bad decisions.

Also, if you've been to a baby shower in the past year, you know that there are a million gadgets for sale to ease any parents' neurosis. So, why can't something be created, whether it's as hi-tech as an alarm or a low-tech as a post-it note on the dashboard that says "DON'T FORGET THE BABY!" Hundreds of children die this way, and it is something so easy to avoid.

I recently noticed a car commercial which touted a "heartbeat monitor" so that the woman approaching her car in the dark parking lot would know that there was a psychopath hiding in the backseat. I would imagine that this could be used in reverse, to alert a parent walking away from the car that the child is still in the backseat. I can imagine this someday becoming a mandatory safety feature for parents, much like child car seats.

That helps solve the problem of parents who "forget" their children. But this country has a far way to go before we solve the problem of parents who leave their children in the car while they work because they can't afford childcare.


  1. I'm surprised that you say "Why is it better to forget your child than to not understand how quickly a car can become too hot for a baby?" The law always has separated intentional offenses from negligent ones, for good reason. It's common sense that accidents are a normal part of being human, even when you are as well-prepared and careful as you can be. They can't always be prevented. But ignorance or wilfully dangerous behavior *can* be prevented, and so *is* deserving of harsher punishment, as a deterrence measure.
    In this particular case, of course, the groomer's ignorance has a lot of pathos to it, since, as you point out, he probably didn't have the ability to read the parenting books the other couple did. But I don't think that absolves him from being painted with the "intentional" brush -- there are parenting classes, often free ones, specifically for immigrants who don't speak much English or are not highly educated. There are hotlines you can call to ask parenting questions. And if you take on the responsibility of having a baby and caring for it, you also take on the responsibility of educating yourself as to *how* to do that. So as incredibly sad as his story is, it makes sense that he would receive a harsher sentence than the father who was guilty of simply making a human mistake. (not that those mistakes *should* happen, and I like your thoughts on warning systems -- but in the absence of any of those, apparently, being available to the professor dad, it was an understandable mistake).

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  3. I say send them all to prison. I don't care how 'tired' you are, or how 'smart' you are. This is your child, dependant on you for it's very life. You made the choice (in most cases) to be a parent, and should take the attendant responsibility.

    For crying out effing loud, how do you forget your child? And how do you not hear the news stories that circulate every year about the dangers of leaving even your dog in a car?

    Yeah, send them all to prison. Or make them sit locked in a car in full sunlight for a day.

    Let's see how they like it.


  4. I think a 20 year prison sentence for an involuntary homicide of any sort is way too long, but I also think (as a lawyer) it's plain that the horse groomer should be treated differently than the professor under the law because he intentionally left the baby in the car. I can't see how it's possible he didn't realize how hot the car gets. Hadn't he ever gotten in a car on a hot day and literally burned himself touching the metal on the seatbelt? I just don't buy it, unless there was evidence that he suffered from a mental deficiency.

    As a response to T.J., I don't see what benefit prison would serve in these cases unless you advocate purely retributive treatment of defendants. And if you do, why are you reading public defender blogs?

    I also can't understand why there's no device available to remind people there's a baby in the car. Seems like it should be simple.

  5. And now I read the article and I realize there was evidence of mental defect. What a shame. He should have gone for a jury trial.

  6. These stories just wreck me. I can't tell you how often I had a mini panic, mid-day, when I realized I honestly couldn't remember dropping my son off at daycare and wondered if he was in my car. (Now, with two sons, both of whom are quite noisy, it would be impossible for me to forget the drop-off process--but when my oldest was a baby, and I was sleep deprived, I often would have no post-daycare memory of dropping him off.) I think you offer some good gadget ideas.

  7. Gadget idea is GREAT!!!

    Professorial types often seem *forgetful* types, but if they are so smart, they should be smart enough to overcome their *forgetfulness*.

    I they survive a day in a car in full sunlight, then they BOTH should be locked away for a long time. Forget about retribution, punishment... Think about protecting society from them!

  8. Here's a slightly old story for you about the perils of eyewitness testimony.


  9. Boo, the link got cut off.

    Click here

    Let's see if that works.

  10. Very interesting post. So sad that those children died. It's just one of those things where there was no malice, and it led to really tragic consequences..like people who leave their cars running in their closed garages, or drive without seat belts..

  11. If the college professor case you are referring to is the one out of Michigan, I think missing in your analysis is the fact that the professor didn't actually "forget" the baby was in the car - he FORGOT it was his turn to take the baby to daycare. His wife put the baby in the van, and then she went to work (if I recall correctly). She later called the daycare to check on the child, the daycare said the child wasn't there. She called her husband and he ran, screaming, hysterical, to his car, never realizing the child had been in the car in the first place. Maybe I am splitting the straw too thin, here, but, I think that makes a HUGE difference.

    There was simply no crime committed - no mens rea, no intent to commit a crime, it wasn't even negligence, except to the extent that the two parents were so exhausted that they didn't communicate with eachother as to who was taking the baby to the daycare center.


  12. No, Law Mommy, the professor is Mark Warschauer from UC Irvine. There's a link if you click on the title of the post, I think. Also, if you search his name, I think maybe in the Wikipedia post, there's his family webpage with the baby's pictures.

    He drove to work, and then went right into the office, instead of stopping at the daycare. Simple forgetfulness probably mixed with overtiredness too.

    But, like I said in the original post, it probably doesn't matter much to the kid.

  13. Here's the important fact people aren't discussing. The college professor has more money and will be able to afford a better legal defense. He'll be able to pay for the expert testimony that says it was perfectly reasonable for him to forget. Our's is a pay to play legal system and if you have the cash you are beholden to none.

  14. I agree, fundamentally, Stopher, but in the case of these 2 men - the college professor never even got *charged.* He never even had the opportunity to hire an expert. It's likely that he hired a lawyer, which you could do when you're just being investigated, but there was never a trial or even a court date.

    The horse groomer probably had a public defender (and, of course, my position is that a public defender is just as good as a private attorney, and it depends which one you get). And I believe that most public defender's offices would hire expert witnesses for their clients, especially when a defendant is facing so much time.

    I know that where I work, we hire experts even for misdemeanor trials. And they're often the same experts the private attorneys are using.

    I do believe money played a role - I believe the prosecutor's office had more respect for the white man with an education and money than for the immigrant with no education and no money, and therefore gave him the benefit of the doubt.

  15. I was shocked to hear Dr Phil on Jay Leno show say that you can forget your child!!?? Is your child just baggage? Lost Luggage?This is a real person we are talking about!! A person that is so dependant on the adults for all their needs and safety. Have to take responsibilty for our actions. Can you say you forgot the speed limit or forgot that breaking any laws gives you an excuse I don't think so! Ignorance is not bliss! Leave Laws aside this is a human who should be loved by their caregivers and not forgotten
    Scary for the other children these people have

  16. I think everybody is missing the point. It is obvious that a car which can so rapidly heat to lethal levels is hazardous and it is the vehicle manufacturers who are at fault. How hard would it be to put in a climate control system, or even something as simple as a heat-activated fan, to prevent such catastrophic increases in temperature? Isn't any increase in price worth the cost if even one child is saved?

    People need to take responsibility for their mistakes. Otherwise, some government agency completely unaccountable to the electorate will remove the freedom to make them.