By Tom Jackman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 18, 2008
Miles Harrison collapsed to his knees, weeping, as a judge acquitted him of felony charges yesterday for leaving his newly adopted 21-month-old son in a sweltering sport-utility vehicle for nine hours in July, killing him.
The Loudoun County father had been charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of the toddler, Chase.
"No prison term is going to cause more pain than that which he has already suffered," Fairfax County Circuit Court Judge R. Terrence Ney said. "The only true atonement here can only take place within his heart and soul, and he's very fortunate that he's been supported by such a strong and loving family, friends, co-workers and neighbors."
A family friend exclaimed, "Thank God," as Harrison struggled to catch his breath upon hearing the verdict.
Harrison, 49, of Purcellville, declined to comment afterward. But his family said he and his wife, Carol, could now grieve the loss of Chase, a process that had been delayed because Harrison was charged almost immediately after the July 8 incident.
Chase "was a happy, loving and wonderful child," said Jane Kershner, Harrison's sister, "and he was lucky enough to have wonderful parents. For having waited so long to become a father, Miles jumped in with both feet and became the best father I've seen. He's a committed person, and he's passionate, and it's a terrible, terrible tragedy for everybody."
Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh, who made the decision to charge Harrison with manslaughter, also declined to comment.
After three arduous trips to Russia, the Harrisons brought Chase home to Loudoun on March 21. The toddler was developmentally delayed from having spent much of his first 18 months in an orphanage, and Kershner testified that she helped the family locate a day-care center in Ashburn that would help him catch up. He started there in late June.
Harrison testified that on July 8, he dressed Chase in a T-shirt and shorts, put sunscreen on him and strapped him in the rear car seat of his GMC Yukon. Harrison said he stopped at a dry cleaner in Purcellville, leaving Chase in the vehicle, then drove to Herndon. He had made or received 13 calls on his cellphone and drove past the exit for Chase's day care, focused on a large work project and problems with employees.
Harrison arrived at his office about 7:30 a.m. and went in, leaving Chase in the back seat on a 90-degree day. Co-workers spotted Chase at 5 p.m.; he died of heat stroke.
Harrison, overwhelmed with grief, was briefly hospitalized when police feared he was having a heart attack. He then spent two weeks in a psychiatric hospital. He emerged from the hospital and went to a Fairfax courtroom to face his indictment.
A string of witnesses testified that the Harrisons were caring parents, thrilled at having the boy in their lives, and that Harrison's action was inexplicable. Harrison testified that he could not explain how or why he forgot to drop Chase off or failed to realize he was still in the Yukon. Harrison, and his wife, who sat in the front row, spent much of the trial in tears.
Harrison's attorney, Peter D. Greenspun, said he chose to have the case tried by Ney rather than a jury so that the crucial legal issue of whether Harrison's conduct was "negligence so gross, wanton and culpable as to show a callous disregard for human life" did not get clouded by a jury's emotional response to the boy's death. He said the death was an accident, an act of negligence, but not gross negligence.
Prosecutors declined to offer Harrison a plea to a lesser charge, and Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Katherine E. Stott said parents should be held to a higher standard because they hold a child's life in their hands. "The fact that he disregarded his duties," Stott said, "when these circumstances are likely to cause injury of death, shows callous disregard."
In his ruling, Ney cited a 1930 Virginia Supreme Court decision that a person "who accidentally kills another, even though he may be chargeable with some actionable negligence, is not guilty of a crime, unless his negligence is so gross and culpable as to indicate a callous disregard of human life and of the probable consequences of his act."
"By any and every objective standard, while Mr. Harrison was plainly negligent," Ney said, his acts did not rise to the level of callous disregard for human life.