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Why Was Father Who Killed Son In Car Acquitted?

The tragic and horrifying case of Miles Harrison, the Loudoun County man who killed his 21-month-old son by leaving him in a broiling hot SUV for nine hours last July, ended this week when a Fairfax County judge acquitted the father of involuntary manslaughter.

As much as the father has suffered, and as much as he proved in court that he truly did love and adore that boy, Judge Terrence Ney's decision unjustly fails to hold Harrison accountable for his negligence. Just because someone who does wrong feels terribly about his misdeed does not absolve the justice system of its responsibility to hold all of us to a standard of decent behavior.

The facts in the case are clear and awful. Chase Harrison was saved from a Russian orphanage by Miles and Carol Harrison of Purcellville, who made three difficult trips overseas to gain custody of the developmentally-delayed baby.

The Post's Tom Jackman describes what happened on the fateful day:

Harrison testified that on July 8, he dressed Chase in a T-shirt and shorts, put sunscreen on him and strapped him in the rear car seat of his GMC Yukon. Harrison said he stopped at a dry cleaner in Purcellville, leaving Chase in the vehicle, then drove to Herndon. He had made or received 13 calls on his cellphone and drove past the exit for Chase's day care, focused on a large work project and problems with employees.

Harrison arrived at his office about 7:30 a.m. and went in, leaving Chase in the back seat on a 90-degree day. Co-workers spotted Chase at 5 p.m.; he died of heat stroke.

The legal question posed by the case focuses on whether the boy's death was merely an accident, or met the legal test of "negligence so gross, wanton and culpable as to show a callous disregard for human life."

Harrison's lawyer argued that the father demonstrated negligence, but nothing gross or wanton. This was an accident, an oversight, a mistake.

But the state prosecutor said the facts in this case cannot be sloughed off to mere accident. "The fact that he disregarded his duties," said Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Katherine Stott, "when these circumstances are likely to cause injury of death, shows callous disregard."

It's hard for me to see how anyone, parent or not, could conclude that leaving a child unattended for a full day in a steamy hot car--essentially forgetting about the existence of the life that you have been entrusted with protecting and cherishing--could be chalked up to accident.

Parents make mistakes, even big fat stupid ones. One evening when my daughter was one, I drove to a toy store on Connecticut Avenue with her in the back seat. We had a rental car that day and when my wife and I got out, I shut the driver's door and immediately realized that I had left the keys--and my daughter--inside the locked vehicle. I left my wife to watch our daughter and I ran for help from the gas station across the street, but a team of mechanics, helpful D.C. police and I were unable to jimmy the lock open. Finally, after about 10 minutes, with my daughter now quite upset, one of the cops smashed open one of the car windows and Julia was safe. Her life was never in danger, but I felt that I had failed her totally and unacceptably. There is of course no direct analogy to the Harrison case, because despite my idiotic act, there was never a moment when the child was in danger. But I learned that very bad things could happen to kids even when parents are trying to be responsible.

Had Miles Harrison merely made the boneheaded move of going into the cleaners while his little boy sat in the hot car, he too would have been in the position of having made a mistake. But instead he left his responsibility as a parent entirely behind.

He literally forgot what he had promised to do when he entered the role of father. If that's not callous disregard, what is?

I'm not saying that Harrison is dangerous or that the rest of us need to be protected from him. And he clearly has suffered greatly, spending time in a psychiatric hospital after the death and testifying in a way that bared his love and his pain.

But that's all after the fact. And the fact is that some people are cut out to be parents and some people are capable of forgetting that their little child, their defenseless charge whom they must protect like no one else in the world will, even exists. A finding of guilt would have helped reestablish that distinction, not for the Harrisons, but for all of us.



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By Marc Fisher |  December 19, 2008; 8:48 AM ET
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Comments

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"And the fact is that some people are cut out to be parents and some people are capable of forgetting that their little child, their defenseless charge whom they must protect like no one else in the world will, even exists."

Wow. That is pretty low, and certainly not necessary in an otherwise reasonably written argument.

Posted by: ArlingtonVA3 | December 19, 2008 9:50 AM

Outrageous, but not surprising. Take this scenario and change the economic circumstances of the parents to poor or working class. Or change the social characteristics to hispanic or black. There would have been a different decision. Judges don't like to punish people who they perceive as good, except for one 'mistake.' The law is interpreted favorably for the 'right' kind of people. The 'wrong' kind of people know this, which explains their low opinion of and trust in the justice system.

Posted by: formerDCresident | December 19, 2008 10:17 AM

I'm sorry, but I do agree with the judge on this one: the parent was neglectful, but he was not callous. Callous disregard would be a pattern of physical neglect, or of abandonment. Neither existed.

This man made a monumentally stupid (and unfortunately fatal) mistake, which he will pay for the rest of his life.


Think of it this way: remember that story of the man who accidentally left the infant on the Metro? Would he be guilty of the same crime if something had happened to the child before he managed to get back to him?

Realistically speaking, even the most responsible parent could make a fatal mistake under the right circumstances. That isn't something any parent wants to think of, but it can and does happen.

Posted by: owl1 | December 19, 2008 10:32 AM

Was there a jury here? If so, I think that judges are constitutionally unable to override a jury's verdict when the jury acquits the defendant.

Posted by: DreA1 | December 19, 2008 10:38 AM

One ought to consider this in light of the purposes of punishment in the criminal justice system.

One purpose is deterrence. I suspect we can all agree that neither Mr. Harrison nor any other parent is going to look at the outcome in this case and have it factor into how they care for their children in the future. Mr. Harrison's failure was a moment of non-thinking, not a conscious decision that it was OK to to something that put his child in danger.

Another purpose is retribution. That is to make sure that society at large gets some form of cathartic relief by knowing that someone who has inflicted harm on others has been caused to suffer some harm himself/herself. Many people question the appropriateness of this consideration in a civilized society. But even if you believe that it is an important function of the criminal justice system, it seems to me consistent with that view to take note of the suffering that Mr. Harrison has already undergone through the loss of his son and the burden of guilt that he carries within himself.

The final purposes of criminal sentences are rehibilitative/preventive. You either attempt to change the criminal's future behavior through education or other means and/or you keep the criminal off the streets where he/she could commit additional crimes. These factors certainly seem to have no bearing on Mr. Harrison's case.

Seen in this light, one can certainly understand the judge's conclusion that Mr. Harrison deserved no further punishment.

That being said:

(1) All of the factors I describe above go to the proper treatment of a convicted criminal. They have no relevance to the determination of guilt or innocence. I believe the judge clearly overstepped his bounds in acquitting the defendant, even if I also agree that a harsh sentence would have been unjust. Unfortunately, our current sentencing laws often leave little or no leeway for judges and/or juries to exercise reasonable discretion in meting out punishment once a defendant has been convicted.

(2) I sadly must agree with the prior poster who suggested that the outcome in this case was very much impacted by the socio-economic standing of the defendant. It is a sad commentary on our system that these kinds of biases still have such a widespread role throughout society and even the court system.

Posted by: skug67 | December 19, 2008 10:39 AM

Was there a jury here? If so, I think that judges are constitutionally unable to override a jury's verdict when the jury acquits the defendant.

Posted by: DreA1 | December 19, 2008 10:38 AM

No, because the case was focused on the question of negligence, Harrison's attorney chose to have his case heard only by a judge, rather than by a jury.

Posted by: owl1 | December 19, 2008 10:47 AM

The only difference between what you did and what he did was the time and the results. Both of them were accidents. What if your child caused a car accident, by talking to a friend in the car and getting distracted and that resulted in someone's death? Would that be wanton, callous disregard for human life? Would a guilty verdict help us establish the distinction between those who are cut out to drive automobiles, and those who forget that everyone else in the world exists?

This man is guilty of forgetfulness, not callous disregard for human life.

Society would not benefit with a guilty verdict and criminal punishment. This man already knows he is guilty and the state doesn't even have the means to even marginally inflict additional punishment.

As for these statements, "And the fact is that some people are cut out to be parents and some people are capable of forgetting that their little child, their defenseless charge whom they must protect like no one else in the world will, even exists."

Which one are you? You forgot your child in the car. You were just lucky enough to remember more quickly. Every parent has those moments, when your kid disappears when you neglect them for a moment and your stomach drops out. Most of us are lucky enough to find the kid hiding in the cabinet or at the lost and found at the amusement park instead of playing in the street or snatched by a pedophile. This man wasn't and he has to live with it the rest of his life.

"A finding of guilt would have helped reestablish that distinction, not for the Harrisons, but for all of us."

No, it wouldn't have. It would have been a useless act of authoritarianism.

Posted by: tdd1 | December 19, 2008 10:48 AM

(2) I sadly must agree with the prior poster who suggested that the outcome in this case was very much impacted by the socio-economic standing of the defendant. It is a sad commentary on our system that these kinds of biases still have such a widespread role throughout society and even the court system.

Posted by: skug67 | December 19, 2008 10:39 AM

I agree that this does happen in general (and that should NOT)...but I don't think that the socio-economic standing of the defendant was a factor in this specific judge's decision. He seems to be pretty reasonable overall.

Posted by: owl1 | December 19, 2008 10:52 AM

I just have to wonder where the advocate is for little Chase in all of this. People seem to be so quick to defend the father, but that glosses over the fact that this child suffered a horrible, horrible death. I realize that the father will have to live with this his whole life but I agree with Marc fully on this one - it doesn't excuse his "forgetfulness". Clearly Mr. Harrison's mind was not on his child for one minute that day during the ride to work (driving past the day care exit? 13 phone calls?). I simply cannot get past someone getting out of the car and forgetting the child is even there.

Posted by: amyg8r | December 19, 2008 11:04 AM

With all due respect to all of you who seem to know Mr. Harrison's state of mind that fateful morning, none of you actually has any idea. What we do know, from the testimony of those who knew him best, was that this moment was totally out of character for him.

In his column yesterday Marc suggested that the judge should have found him guilty but found a "creative sentence" rather than impose prison time. (Like what, volunteer at a day care center? Market mnemonic aids?) Part of the problem with relying on the courts to provide us with "closure" is that it is a slippery slope. "There oughta be a law" is often quickly followed by "there oughta be a minimum sentence." I'm sure some yahoo state legislator hoping to make a name for himself is dreaming up "Chase's law" as we speak.

There was a time when a large segment of society accepted horrible events as God's will. Okay, many are less likely to accept the idea of divine providence. But to expect courts to provide us with answers does not show any significant leap toward rationality.

Posted by: Cossackathon | December 19, 2008 11:39 AM

A guilty verdict would have been the right thing here. Sentencing is another matter. I don't think Miles should receive more than a year to reflect and ponder. I know someone (white male) serving a 1 year work release for a minor drug offense. He didn't kill anyone accidently or otherwise. That's a huge and unfortunate disparity.

Posted by: flabbergast | December 19, 2008 11:44 AM

Actually the burden of proof was on the prosecution, and they failed to prove a "callous disregard". And the defense attorney was smart to go without a jury. Just look at all the emotional posts for this article and you can understand why. The judge, on the other hand, is less prone to emotional decisions and more likely to rule based upon facts and the law. That is what happened, like it or not. Most all laws require proof of criminal intent. The judge didn't see any here.

Posted by: SoMD1 | December 19, 2008 11:57 AM

Putting myself in the fathers' shoes I agree that the punishment he'll give himself is enough for a lifetime.

But, I think it also shows that it's not a bad idea to have a good lawyer.

Posted by: RedBird27 | December 19, 2008 12:44 PM

When I broke the law and was arrested as a kid I was never more mortified. I couldn't face my parents, my peers, nothing. I stayed home for weeks. Yet the judge still sentenced me to 16 hours of community service. I committed a small infraction, but I still got a stronger sentence than this guy who left his kid to die in a car. He didn't even get community service.

Posted by: bbcrock | December 19, 2008 12:45 PM

Callous disregard would be like strapping the car seat to the back of a motorcycle and taking off. I agree with the judges legal reasoning.

Posted by: ronjaboy | December 19, 2008 2:00 PM

Russian officials have been following this case, because the poor toddler was still a Russian citizen. They are not impressed with the decision.

It is understood that the man's guilt is a form of punishment. However, the same people who defend the judge's decision would probably not be so understanding if it was the nanny or daycare worker who through negligence killed a child. If it is a high-powered career person, it seems these people protect each other. I am truly disappointed in how many people defend the father's negligence and how few are advocates for the boy. The boy was steamed to death. That is beyond appalling.

This couple should not be allowed to adopt another child.

Posted by: iThink2 | December 19, 2008 2:44 PM

Addition: 'Punishment' has become a bad word with parents/communities. Unfortunately it is still much needed (and underused) in society.

Punishment is generally designed to deter others from doing a similar crime or wrong action. That is where it has the most value--scaring others into doing right, if some are not mindful enough to do the right thing by their own choice.

Posted by: iThink2 | December 19, 2008 3:59 PM

If it were a nanny or daycare worker the bar would be higher since they have only ONE job: look out for the kid. Everything else is peripheral.

Posted by: ronjaboy | December 20, 2008 2:59 PM

Oh. The kids can be peripheral to the parent, but not to the nanny.

Got it.

Posted by: iThink2 | December 22, 2008 10:16 AM

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