Washington Post magazine reporter Gene Weingarten wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning article interviewing 13 parents who had accidentally killed their young children by leaving them inside a car. Following yesterday’s decision to discharge a Whanganui mother without conviction, he tells Morgan Tait why he strongly believes parents should not be prosecuted in these circumstances.
I spent almost a year on that story, during which time I spoke with 13 people who had done this to their children. As I recall, there were seven men and six women. Some remained deeply wounded, paralysed by their grief and guilt; some had managed to better transcend these things, and move unsteadily on. Some of the 13 were reserved and guarded, some were more open. Some of them had been prosecuted, some not.
One thing that bound them together was their absolute certitude that these cases should not be prosecuted. I came to agree with them.
From their perspective, it is entirely about helping these people heal. They are already in an unfathomable hell. They have lost a child. They caused it. There is no greater psychological burden I can imagine. When they are prosecuted, two things happen: They are so busy defending themselves that they have no time to grieve, which, as any grief counsellor will tell you, is a dreadful thing. Second, their marriage - already deeply strained by a sense of betrayal - is further imperilled by introducing a huge financial burden.
That's what the parents say. They are biased, but they are also in a unique position to analyse this. I agree with them, but my reasons extend further.
At the heart of this issue is the simple question of whether this is a "crime". Many prosecutors who look into these cases conclude it is not, and I agree with them. The bio-medical evidence is clear: Stress is very bad for the human memory when it is dealing with routine, everyday robotic events, such as driving a child to daycare.
These cases are a failure of memory, not of love, and though they involve negligence, it is completely inadvertent negligence, one that can be explained, literally on a cellular level. Imagine a different case: A parent who accidentally leaves a gate open and a toddler falls into the swimming pool and drowns.
The parent in such cases is never prosecuted; it is seen as a tragic accident. What is the difference here? Each case proceeds from a single failure of memory and/or diligence and in neither case was there even a whiff of intent. In a sense, you can argue that the swimming-pool parent is more culpable, because he or she actually took an action that resulted in the death.
Second, you have to think about the purpose of prosecuting a crime. Traditionally, there are three reasons: Punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation. We can throw out the last two, for obvious reasons.
No one will be deterred from doing this merely by knowing it is illegal, and there is nothing to rehabilitate that the death itself has not already rehabilitated. These parents become fanatics about car safety, afterwards. So we are left with "punishment," and here is where you have to get philosophical.
There is no prison term longer than the one to which these parents have already sentenced themselves. And that sentence is already disproportionately harsh. This was a mistake they made, not any wilful act. There are cases, of course, where there is no intent but still a crime: If a drunk driver kills someone, he must be punished, but he is also extremely complicit in his crime - he knew he was impaired. There is no such element here.
Finally, there is one more concern: The good of all. What is best for us all is to let these poor, shattered people try to reclaim their lives and become functioning parts of our society. That is far less likely to happen if you prosecute them, destroying marriages, placing draconian financial burdens on them, making them hate themselves even more.
I issue one caveat: I am talking about a certain kind of case where there is no additional negligence. If a parent does this while drunk, or does this KNOWING the child is in the car, the rules are different.