Judge Upholds Charge Against Father of Toddler Left in Hot Car

Date: 2008-12-16

Tom Jackman

A Fairfax County judge this morning declined to dismiss an involuntary manslaughter charge against a man accused of leaving his toddler son in a hot vehicle for several hours, and the trial has resumed in Fairfax Circuit Court.

Miles Harrison, 49, of Purcellville is charged in the July 8 death of 21-month-old Chase Harrison. Chase was found inside his father's GMC Yukon sport-utility vehicle in Herndon. The medical examiner said he died of heat stroke.

Harrison's attorneys argued that the case was an accident, not manslaughter, and the charge should be thrown out. But Fairfax Circuit Court Judge R. Terrence Ney noted this morning that Harrison had placed Chase in the vehicle and stopped at a dry cleaners on the way to work, and ruled that "the Commonwealth has met her burden of showing a prima facie case for involuntary manslaughter."

With potential jurors sitting in the hallway yesterday, Harrison's lawyers decided to waive a jury trial and let Ney act as the fact-finder in the case. Prosecutors did not object, and Ney then began hearing evidence in the death of Chase Harrison, who had been adopted three months earlier from Russia by Miles and Carol Harrison.

Miles Harrison wept frequently as he listened to co-workers and police recount the discovery of Chase's body inside the family's vehicle about 5 p.m. The boy, who was developmentally disabled, had spent nine hours inside the parked sport-utility vehicle, and Herndon police said the 90-degree day probably made the temperature inside the Yukon more than 130 degrees.

The facts of the case are not in dispute. Harrison forgot to drop his son at day care in Ashburn that morning, then went inside his office at 7 a.m. and did not think about the toddler again until a distraught receptionist interrupted a meeting to tell him that Chase was still inside the Yukon, lawyer Peter D. Greenspun said.

"He was pretty hysterical," co-worker David Zorger testified. "He said, 'I've killed my son.' "

Harrison collapsed at the scene and spent the next two weeks in a psychiatric hospital. A Fairfax grand jury indicted Harrison on charges of involuntary manslaughter. Fairfax Commonwealth's Attorney Raymond F. Morrogh said in July, "From where I sit, I have to enforce the law, and the law places certain requirements on people when it comes to many things, especially with children."

Greenspun argued that Harrison's actions were purely accidental and that he had no malice or intent to kill his newly adopted son. A line of witnesses is prepared to testify to the Harrisons' long struggle to adopt and their joy at finally getting Chase this year.

The standard to convict someone for involuntary manslaughter is "negligence so gross, wanton and culpable as to show a reckless disregard for human life," Greenspun said after hearing the prosecution's case. No one testified that Harrison knew Chase was in the car or intended to leave him there, Greenspun argued.

Greenspun asked Ney to dismiss the charge at the close of the prosecution's case. Ney turned to Fairfax Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Katherine E. Stott and asked, "Is it the commonwealth's position that even if [Harrison] forgot [Chase], that he should have known?"

"Absolutely, your honor," Stott said. "It is judged on an objective standard, the offender knew or should have known the results of his actions. . . . When you have a 21-month-old child in your care, you are responsible for that child's care."

Ney said he would study the issue and rule today.

Although Ney does not have a reputation as a pro-defense judge, Greenspun said he chose a bench trial because, "given the emotional circumstances for Mr. Harrison and his wife, and the legal analysis that has to be made on the issue of criminal negligence, going with the judge was the best path for all concerned."

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