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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