Winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing
Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime?
Sunday, March 8, 2009
The defendant was an immense man, well over 300 pounds, but in the gravity of his sorrow and shame he seemed larger still. He hunched forward in the sturdy wooden armchair that barely contained him, sobbing softly into tissue after tissue, a leg bouncing nervously under the table. In the first pew of spectators sat his wife, looking stricken, absently twisting her wedding band. The room was a sepulcher. Witnesses spoke softly of events so painful that many lost their composure. When a hospital emergency room nurse described how the defendant had behaved after the police first brought him in, she wept. He was virtually catatonic, she remembered, his eyes shut tight, rocking back and forth, locked away in some unfathomable private torment. He would not speak at all for the longest time, not until the nurse sank down beside him and held his hand. It was only then that the patient began to open up, and what he said was that he didn't want any sedation, that he didn't deserve a respite from pain, that he wanted to feel it all, and then to die.
The charge in the courtroom was manslaughter, brought by the Commonwealth of Virginia. No significant facts were in dispute. Miles Harrison, 49, was an amiable person, a diligent businessman and a doting, conscientious father until the day last summer -- beset by problems at work, making call after call on his cellphone -- he forgot to drop his son, Chase, at day care. The toddler slowly sweltered to death, strapped into a car seat for nearly nine hours in an office parking lot in Herndon in the blistering heat of July.
It was an inexplicable, inexcusable mistake, but was it a crime? That was the question for a judge to decide.
At one point, during a recess, Harrison rose unsteadily to his feet, turned to leave the courtroom and saw, as if for the first time, that there were people witnessing his disgrace. The big man's eyes lowered. He swayed a little until someone steadied him, and then he gasped out in a keening falsetto: "My poor baby!"
A group of middle-schoolers filed into the room for a scheduled class trip to the courthouse. The teacher clearly hadn't expected this; within a few minutes, the wide-eyed kids were hustled back out.
The trial would last three days. Sitting through it, side by side in the rear of the courtroom, were two women who had traveled hours to get there. Unlike almost everyone else on the spectator benches, they were not relatives or co-workers or close friends of the accused.
". . . the lower portion of the body was red to red-purple. . ."
As the most excruciating of the evidence came out, from the medical examiner, the women in the back drew closer together, leaning in to each other.
" . . . a green discoloration of the abdomen . . . autolysis of the organs . . . what we call skin slippage . . . the core body temperature reaches 108 degrees when death ensues."
Mary -- the older, shorter one -- trembled. Lyn -- the younger, taller one with the long, strawberry-blond hair -- gathered her in, one arm around the shoulder, the other across their bodies, holding hands.
When the trial ended, Lyn Balfour and Mary Parks left quietly, drawing no attention to themselves. They hadn't wanted to be there, but they'd felt a duty, both to the defendant and, in a much more complicated way, to themselves.
It was unusual, to say the least: three people together in one place, sharing the same heartbreaking history. All three had accidentally killed their babies in the identical, incomprehensible, modern way.