A father in upstate New York dropped off his two older children at school in 2014, then parked his car outside his house and went to work. He forgot that his 15-month old daughter was still in her car seat, and she died of heatstroke.
Two years later, a similar death occurred in another upstate town when a baby boy sweltered to death in his car seat while his father, a police officer, did chores.
Then last week, a social worker from Rockland County, a suburb northwest of New York City, delivered his 4-year-old to day care and went to work at a Bronx hospital, leaving his year-old twins to die in his car in the heat.
Though the tragic incidents were jarringly similar, the decisions by prosecutors who handled each of the cases were not. Prosecutors charged the social worker with manslaughter in the deaths of his twins, while the other two fathers upstate never faced charges.
The wide variation in charges highlight the complex and fraught nature of the decisions confronting prosecutors — in New York and nationally — who must decide whether to indict grieving parents who said they simply had forgotten that they had left a young child in a hot car, a nightmarish phenomenon that claims about three dozen lives a year across the country.
Those decisions are influenced by many factors: a desire among some prosecutors to extend mercy to parents they believe made a tragic mistake, scientific questions about faulty memory and legal considerations about whether the state can prove the parent is guilty of a crime. Decisions are often made in the face of inflamed public opinion on both sides of the debate.
As a result, some parents who forget their children in cars face no charges, others are charged with felonies like involuntary manslaughter and still others are charged with misdemeanors, like child endangerment.
“All in all, there is no rhyme or reason to how these cases are treated,” said Amber Rollins, the director of KidsandCars.org, an organization that has analyzed 833 pediatric deaths caused by heatstroke in hot cars since the mid-1990s.
In the Bronx case, the social worker, Juan Rodriguez, told the police he was convinced he had dropped the twins off safely at their day care after he had dropped his older son off at another child-care provider.
But he had not. While the babies slept, he drove his usual route to the Bronx, parked outside a veterans’ hospital where he worked and put in a full day, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., the police said. He had started to drive home before he realized the babies, having died of heatstroke, were still in the back seat. “I blanked out,” he told the police. “I killed my babies.”
His wife, Marissa A. Rodriguez, has stood by him, calling the deaths a horrific accident.
The Bronx district attorney, Darcel D. Clark, immediately charged Rodriguez with manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide, based on a sworn complaint from the police. Clark has not commented on her reasons for moving so quickly in Rodriguez’s case, which is one of the first of its kind in her borough.
It remains unclear if Clark will bring Rodriguez’s case to a grand jury and seek an indictment. Her office is continuing to investigate the case with the police, a spokeswoman, Patrice O’Shaughnessy, said. Rodriguez is due back in court Thursday.
Rollins said her organization had identified 494 deaths involving caregivers who, like Rodriguez, said they were not aware they had left their babies in hot cars. In 43% of those cases, no charges were filed. In 32% of the cases, the caregiver was charged and convicted. And in 11% of the cases, the person was charged with a crime, but the judge or jury did not convict. The other 14% accounts for cases that are still open or the status is unknown.
The deaths are typically caused by a glitch in how the human memory operates, said David Diamond, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida who studies these cases. When people drive familiar routes, they can go on autopilot, an habitual state of mind that suppresses their ability to remember they had made a plan, he said.
For prosecutors, the critical questions are whether evidence exists that the parent meant to harm their children or knew they were placing their children in danger, legal experts said. There has to be some degree of intent to make conduct criminal.
“There always has to be some mens rea, some knowledge, intent, awareness,” said James Cohen, a professor at Fordham University School of Law in the Bronx, using the Latin legal term.
In Ohio, the Warren County prosecutor, David Fornshell, said he decided not to charge a woman in 2017 who had left her 15-month old baby inside her car with fatal results. He was ultimately convinced it was an accident in part because a security video showed how horrified the mother was when she learned she had not dropped her baby off at day care as she had thought.
“There’s nothing as a prosecutor that you are ever going to be able to do to that parent that is going to come close to what that parent is going to have to live with for the rest of their life,” Fornshell said.
In Oneida County in upstate New York, the district attorney, Scott McNamara, said he spent two months investigating whether there was any hint of malfeasance that could explain why Officer Mark Fanfarillo would leave his infant, Michael, in a hot car after dropping his older brother off at a different day care. He said he could not find any.
“Just because you do something wrong doesn’t make it a crime,” McNamara said, explaining why he brought no charges. “After everything was done, and everyone was interviewed, we came to the conclusion that he just forgot, and I don’t think the law punishes forgetting.”
The Herkimer County district attorney, Jeffrey S. Carpenter, came to a similar conclusion about Alan Lyon, who left 15-month old Sophia alone in a sweltering car after dropping off her siblings.
“I looked at everything I could regarding the father, his prior history, his conduct, whether there was obsessive alcohol use, anything,” Carpenter said. “And everything in this case came back to he simply forgot she was in the car.”
In the New York cases that resulted in charges, there were early hints that something else besides mere forgetting was at play.
In April 2004, for instance, a Long Island mother, Yesenia Brito, was charged with criminally negligent homicide after she left her infant daughter, Jada, in a parking lot while she worked a shift at a pediatrician’s office in West Hempstead, New York. The police said she initially lied about the child’s whereabouts. Later, at sentencing, she apologized for leaving the child in the car, saying she did not think the baby would be harmed. She was sentenced to a year in jail.
Murder cases, where prosecutors argue that a parent left a child in a hot car with the intent to kill, are almost unheard-of. But a jury determined that this happened in at least one-high profile case.
In June 2014, Justin Ross Harris, a father in Marietta, Georgia, stopped at a Chick-fil-A for breakfast with his 22-month-old son, Cooper. He then drove to work and left Cooper strapped in a rear-facing car seat in a sweltering parking lot for seven hours. Cooper died.
Harris claimed his son’s death was an accident. But prosecutors moved ahead with murder charges. They found that Harris had exchanged lewd text messages and pictures with at least six women, including a minor, on the day of his son’s death. A jury agreed with prosecutors that Harris wanted his son out of his life. Harris was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He is now attempting to appeal.