But she gets no time behind bars for killing her young son
A Bristow veterinarian pleaded guilty to misdemeanor child neglect charges Monday for leaving her son in a hot van for seven hours last summer while she was at work, killing the toddler after she forgot to drop him off at day care.
Karen Murphy, 40, was sentenced in Prince William County Circuit Court to six years of probation as part of the plea agreement in 2-year-old Ryan's death.
|By the numbers|
|38: Average number of hyperthermia deaths of children left in cars per year since 1998|
|0: Number of hot-car deaths reported in the United States thus far in 2012|
|33: Number of children who died that way in 2011|
|73: Percentage of children who die in hot cars who are age 2 or younger|
|19 degrees: Average rise in car temperature after just 10 minutes during the summer|
|107 degrees: Body temperature that is life-threatening for a child|
|» Never leave a child unattended in a car for any length of time.|
|» Make a habit of looking in the back of your vehicle before you lock up.|
|» Put your purse, briefcase, phone or other item you'll need at your location in the back seat with your child.|
|» Set a timed reminder on your computer or cell phone.|
|» Keep a stuffed animal in the child's car seat; when the child is in the car, put the stuffed animal in the front of the vehicle as a visual reminder.|
|» Ask your child's care provider to call you if the child is unexpectedly absent.|
|Sources: Safe Kids Worldwide, KidsAndCars.org, Jan Null|
Murphy wept in court as she pleaded guilty before Judge William Hamblen.
"Are you entering these pleas of guilty because you are in fact guilty of these offenses?" Hamblen asked.
"Yes, sir," Murphy said through tears, her voice barely above a whisper.
On average 38 children die each year after having been left in hot vehicles, said Lorrie Walker, a training manager and technical adviser for Safe Kids Worldwide. But safety experts say there is wide latitude in how such cases are handled.
Walker said the legal system is generally harsher on paid child care providers who leave children in hot vehicles than on parents who do the same.
"When it's a parent, most of them are already torturing themselves," she said. "No punishment is worse."
Even then, inconsistencies exists. A southern Virginia woman was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced in December to 10 years behind bars for leaving her 1-year-old son, 3-year-old daughter and an elderly woman in a warm vehicle while she went shopping, leading to the 1-year-old's death. But South Carolina prosecutors didn't file any charges against a father whose 9-month-old son died after he was left alone in a vehicle in June, saying they lacked evidence the father committed a crime.
Prince William County Commonwealth's Attorney Paul Ebert said he agreed to the deal because he didn't think justice would be served by sending her to prison.
"I don't think the law can punish her more than she's already been punished," he said. The agreement also calls for a two-year suspended prison sentence, which means she won't serve time as long as she follows the conditions of her probation.
Ebert said a conviction for more severe offenses would have barred Murphy from practicing veterinary medicine; she must perform 400 hours of community service at the county's animal shelter as part of her probation.
"What a felony conviction would do to her, I didn't feel was just," he said.
Edward MacMahon, Murphy's attorney, said he thought the resolution was fair.
"She's devastated by the loss of her son," he said, calling Murphy a good person "who made a mistake."
About a quarter of hot-car deaths happen when a child, like Ryan, is mistakenly not taken to day care, said Jan Null, a San Francisco State University professor who tracks such cases. That can be a particularly deadly scenario, he said, because the child usually isn't discovered for hours -- not until lunch or the end of the workday. Murphy found Ryan dead in her van after she drove home from work.
Ebert maintained that his office could have pursued the murder charge, citing a January incident in which Murphy briefly left Ryan alone in a vehicle until she got a call from his day care provider.
"The neglect in this case was egregious," he said.