By now we’ve all heard the story of how a 40-year-old veterinarian with three children drove to work in June with her nearly three-year old son in the back of her car. She forgot about him, left him in a car on a hot day and, every parent’s nightmare, he died.
According to news accounts, her screams when she found him, which must have been heart-wrenching, could be heard throughout the neighborhood.
This is when Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert decided that it was a good use of Virginia’s scarce law enforcement resources to prosecute her.
What is the point of the prosecution?
Is it that Karen Murphy should be punished by Mr. Ebert for her terrible error? She’s burying her toddler. Punishment has been accomplished. No amount of prison time or public humiliation is worse than living with the results of her error.
Is it that other parents need to be warned that if they leave their kids in hot cars that they’ll go to prison? Only crazy prosecutors – and this man may be one – think that prison is a bigger deterrent than a limp and breathless child.
In Takoma Park, where everyone I know is a parent, the reaction in my small circle has been uniform: “It could have been me.”
We all have had times where we’re worried about something at work, thinking about how to manage a packed schedule and, being distracted, we did something stupid. Maybe we almost drove smack dab into a parked car – something I witnessed on my street on Sunday. Or maybe we tried to start our car with the house key – something I did on Saturday. Maybe we drove away with our coffee cup merrily riding on the roof of the car.
Usually those worries and distractions lead to nothing more than us laughing about how stupid we are, but, sometimes, there is tragedy. A car accident. A child who overheats in a hot car.
The two people I’ve talked to who had the harshest reaction to the incident were, not suprisingly, women without children. “How could she be so stupid?” one said, noting that the same woman had made the same error in January. “I hope she got arrested!” the second nearly roared.
But most women, and some men, told other stories. Stories of driving almost all the way to work and noticing – hell’s bells! – the kids were still in the car, and then having to drive all the way back to day care to drop them off.
I’ve always credited George Bernard Shaw with this generous thought, but it was apparently British reformer John Bradford who, seeing a group of prisoners headed to execution, said: “There but for the grace of God, goes John Bradford."
My kids are alive and well, but I see the story of Karen Murphy and Ryan and I know full well: There but for the grace of God, go I.