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

7:42 p.m Tuesday, July 18, 2017 Local
Justin Ross Harris was found guilty last November of intentionally leaving his 18-month-old son Cooper in a hot car to die. (Family photo)

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.”

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