A Tragic Charge

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courtesy of ‘Helernn’

WUSA reports that prosecutors in Bristow, VA have indicted Karen Murphy on felony murder and felony child neglect after her son died June 17 as a result of being left in a vehicle. It’s not terribly surprising that the grand jury would agree to the charges but it’s disappointing that the prosecutor would ask for them.

Gene Weingarten wrote on this subject two years ago in his excellent piece Fatal Distraction. It’s so good that if I had to choose between you finishing this article and you clicking away to read it and not coming back… I’d have to pick that you go. It’s a moving and difficult read and worth every second.

I suspect that if anyone on that grand jury had read it they’d have refused to indict on a murder charge and possibly on child abuse. Without that empathetic insight into what these cases typically involve it’s not too surprising they’d choose to indict. The death of a child works us into a rage that rivals any other and the instinct to find someone to blame is hard to resist.

Not impossible, though. Weingarten’s piece quotes a Virginia prosecutor from another area of the state who describes why, in a case tragically similar, he opted not to seek any convictions.

In Portsmouth, the decision not to charge Culpepper, 40, was made by Commonwealth’s Attorney Earle Mobley. As tragic as the child’s death was, Mobley says, a police investigation showed that there was no crime because there was no intent; Culpepper wasn’t callously gambling with the child’s life — he had forgotten the child was there.

“The easy thing in a case like this is to dump it on a jury, but that is not the right thing to do,” Mobley says. A prosecutor’s responsibility, he says, is to achieve justice, not to settle some sort of score.

“I’m not pretty sure I made the right decision,” he says. “I’m positive I made the right decision.”

I’m sad that Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert lacks the same certainty. Absent any new information – which doesn’t seem to be forthcoming – it looks like this case is just going to drag another already suffering soul in front of a court for nothing.

Well I used to say something in my profile about not quite being a “tinker, tailor, soldier, or spy” but Tom stole that for our about us page, so I guess I’ll have to find another way to express that I am a man of many interests.

Hmm, guess I just did.

My tastes run the gamut from sophomoric to Shakespeare and in my “professional” life I’ve sold things, served beer, written software, and carried heavy objects… sometimes at the same place. It’s that range of loves and activities that makes it so easy for me to love DC – we’ve got it all.


10 thoughts on “A Tragic Charge

  1. Thank you for this post. I wholeheartedly agree and pray that the Commonwealth attorney will come to his senses and drop the charges. This poor mother is suffering enough; she has a life sentence already — a life without her child. He should be focused on punishing crimes, not accidents.

  2. I cannot believe for one second Karen Murphy would intentionally do anything to harm her child. We really don’t know the circumstances of this tragic incident, but we do know the person. She is a kind, caring, loving, and gentle person. She is a devoted mother, loving protector of animals, active church member. She goes out of her way to help people. I am certain she will never recover from what happened. I think this is a travesty.

  3. However this is not the first time (apparently) she has made this mistake…

    In January there may be indications she left the child in a car before.

    “Ebert says his decision to present the case to the grand jury was partly based on allegations that Murphy had left Ryan in the van for a short time in January.”

    Sheryl my apologies to what is happening to your close frined.

  4. The January incident is troubling and it may well support a neglect charge – I don’t know enough to weigh in on that. However I can’t imagine any way that justifies a murder charge.

    Virginia has a notoriously problematic felony murder requirement, so it may well be that filing a charge against her for neglect requires the murder charge. I haven’t found someone who can answer that authoritatively for me yet. However if that’s the case my inclination would be to file no charges at all.

    It’s a horrible incident but the reality is, as Weingarten’s article discusses, that this is something that happens across all boundaries of financial success, mental ability, and good and bad parents. If that is the case, what’s accomplished by this prosecution?

  5. So then we are just suppsoed to say “ooops” it happens?

    What is accomplished in any procecution when there are no straight and narrow guidelines?

    A child died due to neglect. Just because it can happen across the board to anyone does not mean one, it should and two no one should be held responsible.

    She was responsible for a life and she allegedly (for some reason or another) failed in that responsibility. What is accomplished if she is just forgiven?

    Funny thing is I can find law covering this for W VA but not Va.
    Ҥ61-8D-4a. Child neglect resulting in death; criminal penalties.
    (a) If any parent, guardian or custodian shall neglect a child under his or her care, custody or control and by such neglect cause the death of said child, then such parent, guardian or custodian shall be guilty of a felony and, upon conviction thereof, shall be fined not less than one thousand dollars nor more than five thousand dollars or committed to the custody of the division of corrections for not less than three nor more than fifteen years, or both such fine and imprisonment.”

    I cant seem to dechiper wrongful death in VA either however I am no lawyer.

  6. I’m not casually suggesting just moving on. I am suggesting that if our only choices, legally, are to let it go or throw someone in jail forever on a murder charge… I’d pick letting it go.

    Because what’s the point of any prosecution? We call it the justice system but it’s really about preserving society. We hope that we’re doing some combination of rehabilitating people who choose to do wrong things and providing an incentive – both for the person charged and for others seeing the prosecution – to not do the same bad thing.

    Can any of those things be accomplished here? We have ways of dealing with malicious action against a child – nothing about this seems to fit that. Will prosecuting this woman provide any additional motivation for someone to avoid forgetting their child in a car? Can anyone not acting maliciously NEED more motivation?

    Even the WVA law you post doesn’t necessarily apply here because it turns on the definition of neglect. Doing a search via http://www.childwelfare.gov/ shows this to be the definition:

    Neglected child means a child:

    *Whose physical or mental health is harmed or threatened by a present refusal, failure, or inability of the child’s parent, guardian, or custodian to supply the child with necessary food, clothing, shelter, supervision, medical care, or education
    *Who is presently without necessary food, clothing, shelter, medical care, education, or supervision because of the disappearance or absence of the child’s parent or custodian

    Obviously there’s a failure here, or perhaps an inability (via failure to remember) but I still come back to the question of what we accomplish by prosecuting. Should we do something just because we can’t stand to do nothing? Is that a good reason to prosecute someone who, by all indications, is already suffering immensely and acted without any malice?

    I don’t have a firm answer of that for myself. But I do know that I’m not comfortable with the idea that this woman deserves to spend the next twenty years in jail. If that’s the only possible result of a prosecution then I am not okay with it.

  7. Yes but you assume she will get the maximum penalty. Just because she can get “20 years” does not mean she will.

    This is when the facts come into play not to mention her character etc.

    Im not so blind to not understand it was a costly mistake. However the fact remains she must be held responsible for the mistake.

    The judge/jury etc will be the ones to decide if it was willfully done or just plain forgetfulness, etc. Then based on that pass judgement assigning what punishment that is permitted under that law.

    We see it all the time people get less of a sentence then the full.

    So if she is convicted/prosecuted under felony murder she will more then likely get a lesser charge/sentence.

  8. Yes to everything Don said. I do understand the prosecutor’s interest in representing the deceased child. I’m not versed at all in legalese, but it seems to me something like manslaughter would be more fitting, if she has to be charged at all. In any case, I hope that if this case does make it to trial, that the sentence is very lenient. It makes no sense to our society to have this capable and loving woman sit in jail.
    Sheryl — I am a bereaved mom myself and know how difficult the guilt associated with losing a child is to get through. If you have much contact with Dr. Murphy, please remind her early and often that she was and is a wonderful mother. She needs to hear that.

  9. Well if she’s convicted of felony murder she will get at least 5 or 20 years depending on whether it’s leveled as first or second degree. That’s the mandatory minimum. I’m not sure I can accept 5 years as just. I know I can’t accept 20.

  10. Please read the Gene Weingarten story Don linked in his original post. It is enlightening to those that cannot wrap their arms around how this sort of traggic mistake could happen. I am praying for Karen and her family.