Life sentence of guilt

A New York State police officer adds to the growing list of 22 parents whose children died of hyperthermia this year after being forgotten in the car – but were these instances crimes?


On average, there are 37 child heatstroke fatalities per year (Photo: CNN)

On average, there are 37 child heatstroke fatalities per year (Photo: CNN)

In this particular case, the answer to the question has been, ”no”, with Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara announcing recently that no charges would be filed against Mark Fanfarillo. The response to this ruling, however, has been a mix of sympathetic relief and claims that his status as a police officer is solely responsible for the decision.

For this specific case, the facts are quite straightforward and boil down to a simple case of forgetfulness with disastrous consequences. After taking his eldest son to day-care, Fanfarillo forgot that his younger son, Michael, had not been dropped off. This meant that Michael remained in the car throughout the day whilst his father was inside the house doing chores and sleeping in preparation for his night shift. The moment of realisation came when he awoke in the afternoon to a call from his wife who had arrived at the day-care to find that Michael had not been there.

Mark Fanfarillo will not be charged after leaving his son trapped in the car (Photo: Rome Sentinel)

Mark Fanfarillo will not be charged after leaving his son trapped in the car (Photo: Rome Sentinel)

However, the smaller details are most likely the reason for the decision to not file charges, as they seem to point to a failure of memory rather than a failure of care for the health of the child. Perhaps the most convincing piece of evidence are the day-care records, which show a clear change in routine for Fanfarillo, as he had only taken Michael there only three out of 22 times.  Furthermore, his phone records show he was not distracted while driving and forensic analysis corroborated his claim that he did chores after returning home. Even his 10 year career in the police force, whilst not giving him a free pass outright, was certainly an indication of his character – and he was evidently an honest contributor to society, not just a bad parent.

As for the claims that the legal system has given him additional lee-way due to his position, there really isn’t much to support them. Unfortunate events like these are only made more tragic by the attempts of certain individuals to further their own agenda.  Whilst it is true that many headlines emphasised his profession, the real story is about the danger of hyperthermia to infants, not an irrelevant detail about the job of one of the parents.  It’s not as if these things happen exclusively to police officers and to suggest he is ”getting away with it” after the death of his son is unfair to say the least. A 2010 article from the Washington Post provides some perspective of the issue, detailing the heartbreaking and sobering tales of some who experienced identical situations to Fanfarillo. From parents being completely oblivious to their child’s corpse in the backseat to others wanting to end things quickly by trying to wrestle a gun from a police officer, it is strikingly obvious that the tragedy these people experience is not one they deserve.

In tragic cases involving the death of children, people often like to throw the word, ”negligence” around without really considering the possibility of a similar event happening to themselves. Nobody ever expects to be placed in the same position as Fanfarillo and as far as most parents are concerned, most would consider themselves too caring to ever fail to remember something as important as their child. In reality, a combination of stress, sleep deprivation and change in routine can completely nullify any prior quality of parental care, meaning that it really could happen to anybody.

Michael was left sleeping in the backseat (Photo: WKTV)

Michael was left sleeping in the backseat (Photo: WKTV)

By definition, criminal negligence is the failure to use reasonable care to avoid foreseeable consequences that threaten or harm the safety of the public. In other words, the question asked in this case should be whether or not Fanfarillo failed to recognise the risk and consequences that would arise from his actions and whether he took reasonable steps within his power to mitigate said risks. Given that he wasn’t even aware that his actions would have any consequences, let alone such severe ones, the threshold required for criminal liability was not met.

In the words of the District Attorney, ”The law distinguishes between someone who leaves their child in a car knowing the child is there but not realizing the risk, and someone who walks away from the car after forgetting the child is in it.” It is this factor that tends to be the deciding factor in the majority of similar cases, not the individuals’ profession and relationship with the police department. The case of Justin Harris back in 2014 shows the importance of this aspect most clearly, with the prosecution bringing up his Internet searches related to death by hyperthermia just days before the incident. Unlike Fanfarillo, Harris clearly knew exactly what he was doing and was rightfully indicted on charges of murder.

Above all, the main purpose of a prison sentence should be to show that justice has been served, and provide an opportunity to the offender to rehabilitate. Yet in this case, it is clear to see that Mark Fanfarillo is by no means a bad man. Whilst the word ”understandable” may trivialise his mistake, ”unforgiveable” is almost certainly too harsh. The simple truth of the matter is that although he may be off the legal hook, his own conscience will undoubtedly enforce a sentence far greater than any court could.

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Jerry Thomas
Jerry Thomas

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