Turning Wade Naramore’s Tragedy into a Criminal Case
June 15, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Arkansas judge Wade Naramore’s toddler son died because he left him in a hot car and went into work. Months later, local prosecutors decided to arrest and charge him:
The arrest stemmed from the July 24 death of the judge’s 18-month-old son, Thomas. Authorities determined that the infant died from excessive heat after being left unattended in a car for more than six hours, according to court documents.
Monday’s bill of particulars, filed by deputy prosecutor Thomas Young, listed a timeline of the day Naramore’s son died. It also laid out the prosecution’s case against Naramore.
Naramore fastened his son into the car seat at about 8:15 a.m. July 24, according to the filing. It was Naramore’s daily routine to take his son to day care, located two blocks from the courthouse. Instead he drove to the office and left the infant in the back seat, the filing said.
There’s nothing more tragic than the death of a child, and Naramore’s guilt and sorrow are probably unimaginable. For most of us, the worst consequences of our forgetfulness involve things like having to drive back home to pick up the envelope we were supposed to mail, or having to buy a new tube of toothpaste on the road because we forgot to pack one. Naramore, on the other hand, now has to spend the rest of his life knowing he was responsible for killing his little boy.
By all accounts, it seems Naramore simply forgot his son was in the car:
Naramore, in an interview with police, said that the morning he forgot his son in the car was out of the ordinary because he stopped at McDonald’s for breakfast and was worried about a court case scheduled for that day, according to court documents.
We all have our little routines, and we do them without even thinking about it. Do you specifically recall locking the front door on your way out of the house today? What about putting your wallet in your pocket? For some reason, we forget to do those things every once in a while. Usually, it’s because of some other change in our routine. Maybe the phone rang. Maybe something upsetting was on the news. Regardless of the cause, it happens to everyone at some point.
Forgetting your wallet or leaving your home unlocked are unlikely to have horrible, deadly consequences for anyone. The mental state we all have when we invariably do something like that at some point, however, is identical to Naramore’s mental state. He’d ordinarily drop his son off on the way to work. Most of the time, he probably wouldn’t have been able to recall the specifics of the drop off if you’d asked him later.
On that one tragic day, he happened to get distracted, first by breakfast, a meal he probably deeply regrets now, and then by work, something he no doubt now realizes is pretty darn trivial in the grand scheme of things. What happened that day is awful and unthinkable, but his mental state was something completely normal. It’s exceedingly common.
No one is claiming Naramore intended to kill his son. No one is arguing he was actually aware the boy was in the car and disregarded the risk that the heat would kill him. Naramore is charged with a criminal offense for his forgetfulness. The prosecution believes that is sufficient to trigger criminal liability:
“The defendant’s complete and utter failure to perceive the fact that he had not dropped the victim off at daycare, and his complete and utter failure to perceive that the victim was still in the car when he arrived at the court house, less than twenty five minutes after he had left his house, after personally loading the victim into his car seat, constitutes as a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable parent in charge of an 18 month old child would have observed in his situation,” the prosecution wrote.
If Naramore had realized his son was in the car as soon as he got to the office and rushed down to get him, even if police were already there, I doubt he would’ve been charged with an offense. It’s really the consequences, the fact that Naramore’s slip wasn’t leaving the boy’s sippy cup on the roof and driving off, but rather leaving the boy in the hot car, that caused the charges in the first time by convincing the prosecution that his failure to perceive was a gross deviation from the standard of care a reasonable person would observe. It’s a crime defined in large part by its consequence.
The problem with the “reasonable person” standard in a case like Naramore’s is that every reasonable person has at some point done something just as stupid and thoughtless as what Naramore did, yet exceedingly few people’s inattentive moments have consequences even approaching what happened with Naramore. If everyone, even reasonable people, occasionally do unreasonable things when they aren’t thinking about what they’re doing, then should the reasonable person standard encompass the occasional unreasonable act?
Although Naramore is charged with a criminal offense arising from the death of a child, the penalties aren’t exactly harsh:
Naramore pleaded innocent in March after his February arrest on a charge of negligent homicide — a Class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Naramore probably didn’t plead innocent, but rather not guilty, but that’s not the most notable part about that snippet. What’s interesting are the issues the offense itself raises.
First is the obvious fact that the classification of the offense as a misdemeanor highlights the legislature’s assessment that, although the offense is a type of homicide, it isn’t a particularly serious type of homicide. A year in jail and a relatively tiny fine for a judge making six figures isn’t much at all. The issue with that then becomes a question of why we are bothering criminalizing and punishing it at all.
The typical justifications for punishment fly out the window when a crime is based on negligence, something defined in Arkansas as failing to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk when doing so constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation. There‘s almost certainly no deterring other people from failing to perceive something, and a criminal conviction and some minor penalties aren’t going to hold a candle to the specific deterrent effect the death of a son has had on Naramore. There’s no restorative possibility for the victim in a situation like Naramore’s either.
Furthermore, it’s hard to see much retributive value in punishing someone for not realizing something they should have. While Arkansas may have determined that proportionality for causing death as a result of negligence entails providing only relatively lenient punishments, it should make you wonder if it’s worth charging at all. Of course, the people who demand some government action every time something happens to a kid would’ve been up at arms that authorities weren’t doing anything if they hadn’t done something. In Naramore’s case, it would’ve probably been even worse due to the likely appearance he would’ve been receiving some sort of special treatment because he was a judge. He never had a chance.
Naramore is surely still in mourning, and he’ll probably never be the same. Those things don’t matter much to the angry mob, though, so at what must have felt like rock bottom came a criminal case bound to make it worse. Rather than help him through a very difficult time, for prosecutors, his tragedy is just another opportunity to use the only tool they have, the one the people demand.