At the end of August, the not-guilty verdict in the Arkansas trial of Judge Wade Naramore for the accidental death of his child resulted in many impassioned responses pro and con about whether he should have been held accountable for this death or whether the jury was right to find him not guilty. One reason for the outpouring of responses was because of the wall-to-wall case coverage by the local media – but then that’s another story which I have written about in describing how the media went too far in sensationalizing the case and causing Naramore and his family even more suffering than the guilt and grief he was already feeling.
You can see my extensive discussion about the excesses of the media in my previous blog: “When the Media Goes Too Far: Covering the Trial of a Judge for His Child’s Death.”
Here I have asked the co-author of my book American Justice?, Gini Graham Scott, Ph.D., a writer, sociologist, with a J.D. from the University of San Francisco Law School, to comment on what it means to obtain justice in a case where an accidental death occurs. And when is one criminally responsible for causing the accident. These were the big issues raised by the case – both in the jury’s verdict and in the extensive pro and con discussion as to whether the jury was right to find the judge not guilty. In general, most of the respondents felt the jury had done the right thing, and Dr. Scott would agree. But other respondents made a strong, compelling case for taking the opposite position, which might be appropriate under other circumstances, where the individual causing the victim’s death is truly negligent due to his or her irresponsible behavior. But if not, the situation might best be regarded as a tragic accident. Let me explain, drawing on Dr. Scott’s analysis.
The basic circumstances of the case are this, as I described in my earlier blog. A year ago, Naramore forgot that he had left his 17 month old son Thomas in his car, and the boy succumbed to heat stroke and died. Naramore thought he had dropped his son, who was in the back seat, off at day care, but when he returned from his court hearings for the day and thought he was going to pick up Thomas to take him to a swimming lesson, he discovered the boy’s lifeless body in the back of the car.
Naramore was devastated. He sobbed hysterically and held his son in his arms in a yard in front of his neighbor’s house exclaiming “I killed my child, I killed my child,” as the neighbor reported. So Naramore clearly had no intention of killing his son, and he had not engaged in any irresponsible, negligent behavior to bring about his death, such as being intoxicated, going on an extended shopping trip, having a conversation that lasted longer than expected, or meeting a mistress for some fun in the afternoon. Even so, despite this lack of intent and lack of irresponsible behavior, the local prosecutor charged Naramore with negligent homicide — a misdemeanor with a maximum term of a year in prison and a fine of $2500.
Thus, under a legal definition of the crime, Naramore was certainly not guilty, as Dr. Scott points out. According the state statute, the state has to show “beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant should have been aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the death would occur.” But in this case, Naramore offered ample proof that he was not aware, and as has been shown in many other cases, “simple forgetfulness is not a matter of criminal intent,” as one Arkansas Democrat-Gazette writer, John Brummett, pointed out in an August 23 article, “Where We Go From Here After Wade Naramore Verdict?” ,which appeared the day after the verdict.
As Brummett explained, the situation would have been different if Naramore had arrived at work that day, looked in the back seat ,saw his son, figured he was only going to be in the office for a few minutes and the child would be fine, but then the child died. Under such a scenario, even if he was gone only for that short time and did not get distracted by other events to say longer, he would have been guilty. That verdict would be the case, because he would have committed an unjustifiable risk providing the basis for considering him guilty of a criminal act. Likewise, if he had been drinking, and his reduced awareness caused him to forget his child was in the back seat, that would be another reason to find him guilty, because he would have been negligent because of his decision to drink and thereafter act under the influence of alcohol.
But in this case, Naramore had forgotten entirely because he was preoccupied with other ordinary things of the day, such as his upcoming court cases, his involvement in routine activities, and his feelings of stress. So he was for very good reasons not aware of doing anything that was a “substantial and unjustifiable risk;” therefore, legally he did nothing wrong. In fact, Naramore had the support of an expert witness who demonstrated that he was so affected by other events that day that he believed he had already dropped off his son at day care.
His expert witness David Diamond, a scientist and professor at the University of South Florida, demonstrated this, based on his 12 years of research into why parents forget their children in vehicles. As Diamond explained, parents can come to experience a false memory of doing something that they usually do. In this way, Naramore had developed the false belief that he had already dropped Thomas off at day care that morning. And thereafter, he was truly devastated, had nightmares, and woke up screaming, helping to show how much he loved his child and in no way wanted to harm him.
While some opponents of the verdict thought that Naramore’s ability to hire an expert witness and lawyer for his defense enabled him to escape punishment, in most cases, as my co-author Scott notes, people aren’t typically charged and convicted on the facts of Naramore’s case, because simply forgetting something does not show criminal intent. Certainly, in a few cases reported in the news, the police have arrested a person for leaving a child in a car and charged them for being negligent, even when the child suffers no serious harm, such as in one case where a woman in Georgia stopped at a store to go to the bathroom and left her three young children in the car. Police officers arrested her when she returned to the car 10 minutes later, though her children weren’t hurt. However, such an arrest is the rare exception, and Scott believes it is unlikely that the woman would be later prosecuted, though the children were released to their father. Rather, a probable outcome is for social services to step in to work out future arrangements with the parents to be sure the children will be properly cared for and safe.
Thus, it is understandable why the jury found Naramore innocent, and why the courtroom broke into loud cheers and sobbing when the verdict of innocence was announced. But many others didn’t agree, as reflected in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s reader survey of whether they agreed with the jury’s not-guilty decision or whether they believed he should have been found guilty. Still more comments came in response to Brummett’s article.
What is especially interesting is the way most of the comments did not respond to the legal definition of justice. Instead, those supporting the verdict tended to emphasize Naramore’s great suffering and the fact that his feelings of guilt and loss would be much greater punishment than the actual punishment for the crime if he was found guilty. They also focused more on the judge’s suffering rather than on that of Thomas, so they had more sympathy for the judge and his wife.
By contrast, those who felt he should have been punished seemed to see this as a case of a high-profile wealthy person getting away with a crime because he could afford the best defense. The irony is that in actuality, Naramore was charged and went to trial because of his high profile, whereas if he was just an ordinary citizen, the police would not have even arrested him, based on the facts of the case, which showed his lack of negligence and intent.
To illustrate the difference, here are some quotes from people supporting the not guilty verdict based on focusing on Naramore’s suffering:
“I fail to see what is gained by the State Extracting their Pound of Flesh from a Tragedy such as this. It does not deter, it does nothing except cause more pain and suffering.”
“Of course the child suffered but at least he is at rest now. This man has already died a thousand deaths & will die thousands more in his lifetime. Nothing the court can impose could surpass THAT suffering.”
“He will be living this hell for the rest of his life. Sympathy or hate is irrelevant – that is a fact. That will be his punishment, knowing that boy cooked while strapped to a death chair, under his care.”
And there are some quotes mentioning the judge’s suffering and lack of fault in making a mistake, thereby making a more legal distinction, without actually using legal terminology.
“Unless Naramore had been on drugs or drunk, he should not be prosecuted for this. This appears to be a case of negligence brought on by lack of sleep – not a more culpable state of gross recklessness…Accidents do happen. Unless the parents act recklessly, we do not prosecute. The death of the child is punishment enough. So sad…”
“There is no evidence of intent. No parent is perfect, and every parent has had accidentally done something that endangered their child. If this case was like one in Georgia where they clearly established that the guy was sexting and trying to get out of any unhappy life, I might believe he had intent. This case, however, is about somebody who was distracted and made a mistake. He will bear the consequences of his actions for the rest of his life, as will his family and friends.”
By contrast, here are some quotes from the people feeling he should have been found guilty given the loss of his child’s life:
“If this defense worse, then sad day for the life of a child …acting like it is just lost car keys with inconvenience of getting another set made…My real sympathy is still with the child.”
“Not every law requires intent for you to violate it. So his lack of intent is irrelevant.”
“Unfortunately FAIRNESS is an issue here. If the world were fair, no one would be blamed and jailed for an accident. But I think that we all know that that’s not true. Had this been a minimal wage worker, working two shifts to try to pay the bills, truly overwhelmed by life, he probably would have gone straight into the jail before the funeral and would have been unable to attend his own child’s funeral. I doubt that Naramore would have been very understanding with a defendant who committed such an act.”
“He should have been convicted. That poor child suffered as his body temperature rose so high that he eventually died. How would y’all feel if this happened to your child at their daycare? You would want someone’s head! No excuse for leaving your child to suffer!”
“The fact that Naramore suffered the punishment of losing a child should NOT factor into whether he is guilty of the law or not. It clearly did, however, given the verdict.”
In a few cases, which I noted myself, some of those against the verdict felt the system discriminated against poor or minority citizens compared to wealthy individuals or those who are part of the system. They felt that Naramore got off because he was a well-known, well-connected judge. However, the irony is that he was actually charged because the incident gained a lot of publicity due to Naramore’s position, and so the prosecutor felt compelled to charge him, though he wouldn’t otherwise.
In sum, those for and against Naramore’s guilt clearly had different views about what should be justice. Those supporting the verdict considered the judge’s great suffering, along with his lack of intent and negligence, just as the jury did, while those who thought he should be convicted focused on the suffering of the child caused by his act.
This discussion of whether justice was served in this case is also considered in my book American Justice?, written with Gini Graham Scott. As the book suggests, there are many opinions about what is justice or injustice, and there are many flaws in the criminal justice system. The book provides some suggestions about what to do to deal with these problems, and perhaps these suggestions will help people come to a better consensus about what is justice and how it can be dispensed more fairly to all. Likewise, the book provides many examples of injustice, with a view to reducing such conditions in order to provide everyone with a more equitable treatment.