Division Over Leaving Kids in Hot Cars to Die: Should It Be a Crime?


Last June, Virginia veterinarian Karen Murphy mistakenly left her infant son, 2, in a hot car to die. Last week, Murphy 41, was permitted to plead guilty to misdemeanor child neglect, says the Washington Post. She faces 400 hours of community service, six years of probation, and a lifetime of grief and shame. There are 15 to 30 cases like this around the U.S. each year. The parent usually is an ordinary, responsible person who was under unusual stress — stress that neuroscientists have found can trigger a hiccup in the memory system of the brain.

Should these cases, with no intent to harm and no additional contributory negligence such as substance abuse, where the event was triggered entirely by a lapse of memory, be treated as crimes? Nationally, there is no consensus. Kids and Cars, a child-safety advocacy group, in roughly 40 percent of these cases, the death is declared accidental and no charges are filed. The other 60 percent — with nearly identical facts, and under nearly identical state laws — are aggressively prosecuted on charges ranging from child neglect to murder.

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