He Left His Twins to Die in a Hot Car. Accident or Crime?


Professor James Cohen is quoted in a New York Times article about the disparity in how public defenders charge parents who have lost their children in “hot car” cases.

The wide variation in charges highlight the complex ad fraught nature of the decisions confronting prosecutors — in New York and nationally — who must decide whether to indict grieving parents who said they simply had forgotten that they had left a young child in a hot car, a nightmarish phenomenon that claims about three dozen lives a year across the country.

Those decisions are influenced by many factors: a desire among some prosecutors to extend mercy to parents they believe made a tragic mistake, scientific questions about faulty memory and legal considerations about whether the state can prove the parent is guilty of a crime. Decisions are often made in the face of inflamed public opinion on both sides of the debate.

For prosecutors, the critical questions are whether evidence exists that the parent meant to harm their children or knew they were placing their children in danger, legal experts said. There has to be some degree of intent to make conduct criminal.

“There always has to be some mens rea, some knowledge, intent, awareness,” said James Cohen, a professor at Fordham University School of Law in the Bronx, using the Latin legal term.

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