DeKalb hot car death: How it’s different, similar to Ross Harris case


Cause of death is about the only thing that links the cases of a DeKalb County mother charged Tuesday with murder and Justin Ross Harris, found guilty last November of intentionally leaving his son in a hot car to die.

Police say Dijanelle Fowler did not intend to harm her 1-year-old baby Skylar, whom she allegedly left in her car with the air conditioning running for six hours while getting her hair done at a Tucker salon.

Jurors found that Harris, sentenced to life in prison plus 32 years without the possibility of parole, acted maliciously when he left 22-month-old Cooper in a sweltering SUV for seven hours. Harris is one of the few parents ever to be charged with malice murder in a hot car death.

“Every case is different,” said Janette Fennell, president and founder of KidsAndCars.org, a child safety nonprofit.

But in Georgia, the prescribed legal remedy has increasingly been the same. It stems from a state law passed in 2014 that introduced a second-degree murder charge specifically created to address hot car deaths.

Prosecutors have brought that charge against parents or guardians, including Fowler, in each of the cases in Georgia dating back to January 2016. It carries a punishment of up to 30 years in prison.

None of these incidents inhabit the murkiness that surrounded the Harris case, which led to sharp divisions over whether he truly intended to murder his son.

» On a cold winter afternoon, Barbara Pemberton of Walker County left her 1-year-old grandson locked in her car with the heat on for five hours. The heat, combined with the sun’s rays, made the vehicle’s interior as hot as “a summer day, ” the GBI said shortly after the toddler’s death. Pemberton pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 10 years probation.

» In August 2016, twin 15-month-old siblings died in a hot SUV after being trapped in their car seats, according to Carrollton police. Their father, Asa North, admitted to officers that he had been drinking that day and had forgotten to remove his daughters from inside his Nissan Rogue. He was indicted on two counts of second-degree murder.

The real test of the law will come when a child is unknowingly left inside a hot car and dies, which happens in more than 50 percent of such cases, Fennell said.

“That could set a very dangerous precedent,” she said. Ninety percent of the time, Fennell said, kids are left in cars by good parents who made a tragic mistake.

Marietta defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant said it will be up to the discretion of prosecutors not to overuse the second-degree charge.

“The standard is negligence,” she said. “I just hope we don’t see this used every time one of these tragedies occurs.”



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

Eagle’s Landing friction: 5 things to know about new proposed Henry County city
Eagle’s Landing friction: 5 things to know about new proposed Henry County city

Leaders of the city of Stockbridge are in a battle with some of their constituents over an effort to form a separate town by breaking away from a portion of the Henry County community. Residents of Eagle’s Landing, comprising a number of largely wealthy neighborhoods in southern Stockbridge, are trying to break away and form a separate city....
Third-graders in Missouri selling raffle tickets for AR-15 weapon
Third-graders in Missouri selling raffle tickets for AR-15 weapon

Selling raffle tickets to benefit an athletic team is not new, but having an AR-15 semiautomatic weapon as the prize is drawing heavy criticism in the wake of the shooting at a Florida high school that killed 17 and injured dozens, The Kansas City Star reported. Third-graders in the southern Missouri city of Neosho were selling the tickets to...
John Kasich rips Congress, urges 'common-sense gun laws'
John Kasich rips Congress, urges 'common-sense gun laws'

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who signed laws making it legal to carry concealed weapons at daycare facilities and college campuses, said he has “no confidence” Congress will approve what he called “common-sense gun laws” in the wake of a mass shooting last week at a Florida high school. During an interview Sunday on CNN’s &ldquo...
Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter recovering after surgery at Emory
Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter recovering after surgery at Emory

Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter is recovering at Emory University Hospital after a successful surgery Sunday, according to a statement sent by The Carter Center. She had scar tissue removed from a portion of her small intestine caused by removal of a cyst many years ago and she is expected to stay at Emory a few days, spokeswoman Deanna Congileo...
Police: Uber Eats delivery flees after customer shot, killed in Buckhead
Police: Uber Eats delivery flees after customer shot, killed in Buckhead

A 30-year-old man died of injuries after a shooting in Buckhead that police believe involved an Uber Eats driver. Witnesses told Atlanta police the man ordered food via a smartphone app to be delivered to the 2800 block of Pharr Court South about 11:30 p.m. Saturday, Atlanta police spokeswoman Stephanie Brown said. As the man, whose name has not...
More Stories