Criminal Attorney Oklahoma Defense Lawyer Adam R. Banner OKLAHOMA CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY AT LAW

The Oklahoma Legal Group Blog

Vehicular Heatstroke Deaths and the Case of Justin Harris

Adam Banner - Friday, August 01, 2014

Every summer, dozens of tragic tales of young children dying in hot cars frighten and horrify people across the nation. According to KidsandCars.org, a non-profit child safety and public awareness group, an average of 38 children die of heat stroke, or hyperthermia, each year when they are left or trapped in hot cars. Last year, there were 44 such deaths. This year 16 children have already died of heat stroke in a vehicle superheated by the summer sun.

Perhaps the highest profile heatstroke death this year is that of 22-month-old Cooper Harris in Cobb County, Georgia. Initially, Cooper's death sounded like that of so many other children forgotten by distracted parents varying from their usual routines. Justin Ross Harris, the boy's father, told police he was supposed to drop Cooper off at daycare but forgot the toddler was in the car. Instead, he drove to work, where the little boy remained strapped in his car seat as outside temperatures reached 92 degrees, and investigators believe the internal temperature of the vehicle reached upwards of 130 degrees.

Later, though, Harris's story began to fall apart. He allegedly told police that he had breakfast with his son at a fast-food restaurant, part of a special bonding ritual between the father and son. He then strapped the boy into his car seat and kissed him on the forehead, but forgot to drop him off at daycare, driving instead to work.

Investigators say that the distance between the fast-food restaurant and the daycare was approximately half a mile and the drive between the two took only 30-40 seconds. This would mean that Harris forgot his son only seconds after putting the child in the car and kissing him. Police say he even returned to the vehicle on his lunch break to place something in the car, but still failed to notice his son in the back seat.
Even more damning is Harris's online searches in the day's prior to Cooper's death, including searches for "child deaths in hot cars," articles on living "child-free," and how to survive in prison.

Furthermore, when Leanna Harris, the boy's mother, discovered that her son had never been dropped off at daycare as planned, her immediate response was, "Ross must have left him in the car. There's no other explanation." Investigators say she also searched for information about hyperthermia deaths prior to her son's death and they say her behavior both prior to and after the incident is "suspicious."

While Justin Harris has been charged with child cruelty and felony murder, his wife Leanna has not been charged as of this writing. Investigators are viewing her actions with close scrutiny, however, and if they find evidence of a conspiracy, she will be charged as well. Even as a criminal defense attorney, it is hard for me to stomach these allegations and the circumstances surrounding them.  If the father did in fact plan to kill his infant child in such a horrible and cruel manner, Hell might not be hot enough for Justin Harris.

Not every hyperthermia death of a child in a hot car is a criminal offense, and there have been new revelations that suggest Justin Harris may not be as guilty as the media wants to pronounce. In approximately 30 percent of cases, a child slips away and gets trapped playing inside a vehicle. Such is the case of 3-year-old Logan Cox. Logan was watching television with his mother on July 2 while his grandmother was in another room. Logan's mother began to doze, and the boy sneaked outside and into the vehicle. Although the boy was discovered less than an hour after he went missing, he died of his injuries four days later.

However, a Texas man has recently been charged with manslaughter after his two young daughters, ages 3 and 4, were locked in his pickup truck. While the younger girl survived the ordeal, her 4-year-old sister died of heatstroke. Russell Lindstrom said that he thought the girls were napping and he went to do laundry and other chores.  When he returned to check on them, they were gone. He says he discovered them in the truck, which had been unlocked. Child Protective Services investigated Lindstrom for "neglectful supervision," and he was charged with manslaughter and injury to a child.

Why the difference? Why is a dozing parent not charged when her child slips away, but a father doing chores around the house is? It could be that police found marijuana and a pipe at Lindstrom's residence, or it could be that since Cooper Harris's death in Georgia, investigators are wary of believing that parents simply "forgot" their children.

Jan Null, with the San Francisco State University Department of Geosciences has listed all of the 2014 child vehicular heatstroke deaths to date. The oldest, 5-year-old Logan Jacobs, of Princeton, Illinois, went to the family car to charge a tablet but died of hypothermia. The youngest, 2-month-old Mason Ryan Wood of Ardmore, Oklahoma, was left in a vehicle for seven hours while a family member, 42-year-old Richard Chastain, was supposed to be taking care of the baby. Chastain was arrested and charged with manslaughter, and police are investigating whether the man--who has prior convictions for DUI, drug crimes, and even manslaughter--was under the influence of drugs at the time of Mason's death.

In one of the most recent cases, 15-month-old Benjamin Seitz died on July 7 after being left in a hot car for several hours at his father's work. The boy's father was supposed to take him to day care, but drove to work instead. Police say they received no 911 calls about the boy, but that the father instead drove the child to the hospital after discovering him in the vehicle. Police are still investigating.
Some people wonder how a parent could ever forget a child, but experts say "Forgotten Baby Syndrome" is a real phenomenon, in which "habit memories" and "prospective memories" clash. A parent not following his or her usual routine may be acting on "autopilot," truly forgetting that the child is in the back seat.

Other parents simply fail to realize the dangers of leaving a child in the vehicle. These parents may leave a child unattended as they "run into" a store for a quick errand. If the errand takes longer than intended, and the temperatures climb more quickly than expected, the results can be disastrous.

Then there are the parents who leave a child in a vehicle for more sinister purposes. Heather Jensen was found guilty earlier this year of child abuse resulting in death after her two children died of hyperthermia when she left them in a car with the heater running while she had sex and smoked pot in a nearby vehicle. Daniel Gray was convicted of manslaughter and child abuse after his 3-month-old son died in a hot car on a 102 degree day in Phoenix. Gray was smoking marijuana with a friend outside the vehicle and "lost track of time" while his infant son died of heatstroke inside.

Previously, law enforcement officers had to distinguish between forgetful parents and neglectful parents in these tragic child deaths. Now, with the Harris case in Georgia, investigators may be eyeing vehicular heatstroke deaths with even more suspicion, as a new breed of parent may have emerged: the malicious and the homicidal.

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