Mother pleads guilty to misdemeanor in death of son left in car seat

March 12, 2012

A Bristow area woman whose toddler son died in June after he was left in the family’s minivan for about seven hours pleaded guilty Monday to two misdemeanor child neglect charges.

Karen Murphy, 40, a veterinarian, was ordered to serve six years of probation and to perform 400 hours of community service at an animal shelter. Under an agreement with prosecutors, which was accepted by Prince William County Circuit Court Judge William D. Hamblen, a felony murder charge was dropped and the two misdemeanor child neglect charges replaced the original felony child abuse charges.

Murphy’s son, Ryan, was just shy of his third birthday when he was left strapped in a car seat while Murphy went to work at Caring Hands Animal Hospital the morning of June 17. She typically dropped him off at a nearby day-care center.

About 4 p.m., after she had arrived home from work, her husband, Mark, called to say that he had gone to pick up Ryan from day care but that the toddler was not there. Karen Murphy found Ryan, unresponsive, in the van.

Inside the Prince William courtroom, Murphy wore black and held hands with her husband, crying and shaking before the brief hearing. A row of family members and supporters sat behind her. After the verdict, Murphy, who has two surviving children, hugged them and wept outside the courtroom.

“She is just devastated by this, as any family or any mother would be,” said Murphy’s attorney, Edward B. MacMahon Jr. “I never thought it was a felony case, and I’m glad we worked it out the way we did.”

He said Murphy planned to become involved with the nonprofit group Kids and Cars, which works to prevent children’s injuries and deaths in and around vehicles.

The group’s Web site says an average of 38 children die in heat-related incidents in cars every year.

Prosecutors never suggested that Murphy intentionally left Ryan in the minivan. In originally pursuing the felony murder charge, Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul B. Ebert said that Murphy had once before left her son in a vehicle. In that instance, in January 2011, the day-care center called Murphy to tell her that Ryan had not been dropped off, Ebert said. She delivered him a short time later.

“After the first event, it’s almost inconceivable to me” it could happen again, Ebert said Monday. But he said that in exchange for Murphy’s guilty plea he agreed to drop the felony charges because of the “attitude of the defendant,” among other reasons.

“To subject her to a penitentiary would not serve justice,” Ebert said.

Prosecutors around the country have handled similar cases in a variety of ways. In about 60 percent of such cases nationwide, authorities have alleged a caretaker was negligent and filed felony charges, according to a child-safety advocacy group.

In the remainder of the cases, authorities deemed the deaths terrible mistakes that were not criminal.

In a high-profile case in Manassas, Ebert’s office charged Kevin C. Kelly with involuntary manslaughter after he left his 21-month-old daughter, Frances, in a van for seven hours in May 2002, resulting in her death. Kelly was sentenced in February 2003 and received one day in jail every year for seven years and was ordered to perform community service around the date of her birthday.

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