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Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime?

With Harrison, it was Ray Morrogh, the Fairfax commonwealth's attorney. In an interview a few days after he brought the charge of involuntary manslaughter, Morrogh explained why.

"There is a lot to be said for reaffirming people's obligations to protect their children," he said. "When you have children, you have responsibilities. I am very strong in the defense of children's safety."

Morrogh has two kids himself, ages 12 and 14. He was asked if he could imagine this ever having happened to him. The question seemed to take him aback. He went on to another subject, and then, 10 minutes later, made up his mind:

"I have to say no, it couldn't have happened to me. I am a watchful father."

In Portsmouth, the decision not to charge Culpepper, 40, was made by Commonwealth's Attorney Earle Mobley. As tragic as the child's death was, Mobley says, a police investigation showed that there was no crime because there was no intent; Culpepper wasn't callously gambling with the child's life -- he had forgotten the child was there.

"The easy thing in a case like this is to dump it on a jury, but that is not the right thing to do," Mobley says. A prosecutor's responsibility, he says, is to achieve justice, not to settle some sort of score.

"I'm not pretty sure I made the right decision," he says. "I'm positive I made the right decision."

There may be no clear right or wrong in deciding how to handle cases such as these; in each case, a public servant is trying to do his best with a Solomonic dilemma. But public servants are also human beings, and they will inevitably bring to their judgment the full weight of that complicated fact.

"You know, it's interesting we're talking today," Mobley says.

He has five children. Today, he says, is the birthday of his sixth.

"She died of leukemia in 1993. She was almost 3."

Mobley pauses. He doesn't want to create the wrong impression.

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