Ryan Murphy died because his mother left him in a hot car where, at two years old, he could not get out and eventually died from the heat. What if, instead, she had been holding him and tripped at the top of a flight of stairs? What is the difference between accident and murder? Where do we draw the lines between tragic loss, involuntary manslaughter, negligent homicide, and intentional homicide?
Because the loss of a child through something so utterly preventable is difficult to take, punitive responses are hardly surprising. But to be prosecuted for felony homicide – as so many of these parents are – is nothing more than an emotion-based, knee-jerk punitive response. Murder involves intent, mens rea, the guilty mind, the ability to conceive of and intend to carry out harm. As horrible as these deaths are, they are not about intent. They are, at best, about negligence. Even then, I question where to draw the line in the sand that separates negligence from accident, who gets to draw the line, and for whom.
And what does it mean to serve justice in these cases?
In most cases, the child is survived by grieving families, by parents who will struggle to maintain a marriage, by siblings who must grow and develop emotionally in the wake of tragedy. Does justice mean burdening the parents with the costs, both financial and emotional, of mounting a legal defense? Do surviving children deserve to lose both their brother or sister AND their mom or dad through incarceration?
While these deaths are rare (estimated to be about 38 per year by kidsandcars.org), how they are handled deserves more careful attention. Gene Weingarten’s reporting on this topic earned a Pulitzer Prize. It is difficult reading, to be certain, but in covering Karen Murphy’s case, Weingarten challenges us to consider the complicated relationships between tragedies and crimes, as well as the role of intent and the criminal justice system.
Most importantly, though, there are easy solutions to this problem. A blog supporting Karen Murphy suggests at least one that is simple, free, and effective. Day cares, like elementary, middle, and high schools, should call parents of absent children. To check in. To make sure that nothing is amiss. To prevent, even if only a handful, these terrible tragic deaths and the compounded grief caused by the criminal justice system response.