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June 27th, 2017

Crime & Punishment

Innocent Mistake or Child Murder?

Lenore Skenazy

By Lenore Skenazy

Published Sept. 12, 2014

Last week, a grand jury indicted the Georgia man whose toddler died of heatstroke after being left in the SUV for seven hours in June. Justin Ross Harris, 33, faces charges of murder, child cruelty and sexual exploitation of a child (not his son, a 16-year-old girl he sexted that same day, according to police). Harris could face the death penalty if convicted.

He could also become this generation's Ronald O'Bryan, the man put to death for poisoning his son with Pixy Stix on Halloween in 1974.

The connection?

Consider this: Police say Harris had researched hot car deaths online, as well as child-free living. Presumably, the case will be made that he planned to make his son's death look like an accident. Hyperthermia has gotten so much attention in the media that it now seems almost common. Though about 30 to 40 kids die this way each year — or literally one in a million children younger than 10 — if you watch TV, it feels as if it's happening right and left. Harris may — only may — have thought: Who's going to question just one more?

Which brings us to O'Bryan: In January 1974, O'Bryan took out an insurance policy on both of his children. He took out an additional policy a month before Halloween and yet another policy just a few days before the holiday. What's more, a chemist who testified in court said O'Bryan had been asking him about cyanide.

Add to this the fact that O'Bryan was in debt and allegedly about to be fired and the fact that he said the stranger who had given out the poisoned Pixy Stix only stuck his arm out the door and no one ever saw his face.

It took the jury less than an hour to convict him. He was put to death by lethal injection.

O'Bryan appears to have believed that so many kids get poisoned on Halloween that no one would question one more. But the actual number of kids killed by a stranger's candy on Halloween was — and remains — zero.

If a jury decides that Harris deliberately left his son to die after researching toddler heatstroke, it could be another case of a dad's believing that a certain much-discussed type of child tragedy is so common that one more would be just a sad statistic. But the fact is hyperthermia is not that common, thank goodness. In fact, far more children die after being taken out of cars, in parking lots. We are just so obsessed by the idea that any child waiting in a car is in immediate danger that we have lost all perspective.

Of course, Harris is innocent until proven guilty, so I don't want to belabor the point. And in fact, if you looked at all the crazy things I Google on a daily basis, you would take me for a pedophile with a squirrel fetish and chocolate chip cookie obsession. An online trail is not a smoking gun.

What's more, throwing in the "sexual exploitation of a child" charge as if it had anything to do with the hyperthermia case smacks of damning the guy with the charges. If I were charged with drunken driving, would it matter that while sitting at the bar, I'd been cheating on my taxes?

So the case has a lot of disturbing angles on both sides. But one thing is true. When we are fed a steady diet of rare child tragedies in the media, they stop looking rare to all of us — parents and cops, judges and juries, evildoers and the innocent.

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