Father Acquitted of Manslaughter in Son's Death in Car

Date: 2008-12-17

Tom Jackman
Washington Post

A Loudoun County man whose adopted toddler died after being left in a sport-utility vehicle in the hot sun was acquitted this morning of involuntary manslaughter by a Fairfax County judge who said "no prison term is going to cause more pain than that which he has already suffered."

Miles Harrison, 49, collapsed to his knees moments after Fairfax Circuit Court Judge R. Terrence Ney declared that Harrison's conduct did not meet the legal standard for manslaughter. Ney noted that Harrison was, prior to July 8, an unquestionably devoted father to Chase Harrison, the 21-month-old Russian boy he and his wife had been adopted just three months earlier.

"The only true atonement here can only take place within his heart and soul," Ney said, "and he's very fortunate that he's been supported by such a strong and loving family, friends, co-workers and neighbors."

The standard under Virginia law for involuntary manslaughter is "negligence so gross, wanton and culpable as to show a callous disregard for human life."

"The court does not find beyond a reasonable doubt that the elements of involuntary manslaughter have been met. For this reason, the defendant is found not guilty," Ney concluded.

Harrison declined to comment after the verdict.

Yesterday, Harrison testified that he forgot to stop at a day-care center in Ashburn and drop off Chase while driving from his home in Purcellville to his office in Herndon last July. Once he arrived at work, Harrison went straight inside without glancing at the back seat. Chase spent nine hours inside Harrison's GMC Yukon on a 90-degree day and died of heat stroke.

The defense chose to have a judge rather than a jury hear the case.

A string of witnesses, including Harrison's wife, Carol, testified to the loving environment that the Harrisons created for Miles after adopting him from Russia and bringing him to Purcellville on March 21. Many of their anecdotes and comments brought sobs from the audience, and Harrison sat hunched in pain at the defense table.

Cherie Berry, who works at the KinderCare day-care center Chase began attending in June, said, "I've never seen a father cherish a child like Miles did Chase."

Suzanne Segal, Harrison's mother, recalled accompanying the Harrisons to get Chase's blood drawn. She and Carol Harrison dreaded it, but she said Miles Harrison held his new son in his lap "and sang the Ohio State fight song to him. Chase was just looking up at him in amazement. He kept singing and singing to him," and the blood was taken without tears.

Carol Harrison said she feared that Chase's first words would be part of the Ohio State fight song. The boy was developmentally delayed, from spending his first 18 months in Russia, and had not started talking.

Defense attorney Peter D. Greenspun said Miles Harrison could never have intended harm to a son he loved so much and struggled so hard to obtain, including three arduous trips to a distant orphanage.

Finally, Greenspun called Harrison to the witness stand. Harrison said he did not know why he failed to drop off his son and could only shake his head when asked, "Do you know how you forgot?" When Greenspun asked, "If anyone had asked you on that day, where did you think he was?" Harrison could barely croak, "Day care."

But Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Katherine E. Stott said Harrison had taken Chase to day care several times in the previous week, had left him in the car while dropping off laundry and had made or received 13 phone calls while driving.

The standard for involuntary manslaughter is "negligence so gross, wanton and culpable as to show a callous disregard for human life," Ney said. Greenspun said the case was an accident, negligence but not gross negligence. Ney said that accidents are blameless and that negligence implies fault.

The prosecutor said: "This is a case that involves parental responsibility. A case where an adult has voluntarily taken on the care of another life. . . . This is someone who took on the responsibility for Chase that morning. He put him in a hot car, and then he abandoned him."

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