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Hot-car deaths can reflect a brain malfunction

By David Leibowitz
Tribune Columnist

"A horrific death like this strikes me not as criminally negligent parenting, but as an unusually tragic malfunction of the brain." She was 18 months old, the news stories tell us, the daughter of married parents in their mid-thirties. She perished on a warm April Monday afternoon in a Glendale apartment complex, shut inside the family’s four-door sedan. Left behind, the reporters explain. Forgotten by her family. Exposed to the car’s steadily rising heat “for at least a few hours,” according to Glendale police.

If you have lived in Arizona for any length of time, you know that we see stories like this almost annually. Just last year, a Phoenix dad, 44-year-old James Koryor, was convicted of negligent homicide and sentenced to three years in prison for the death of his 2-year-old boy left for hours in a hot car. A key point: While the child’s death was an accident, Koryor was dead drunk at the time, having swilled at least a bottle of gin. So, what of the parents of the Glendale toddler, cooperating with police at press time and reportedly distraught over the death of their daughter? Do they deserve our compassion? Or do they deserve the cold steel of handcuffs?

My take: Absent extenuating circumstances uncovered by investigators — drinking, a drug haze, willful concealment of evidence — I believe we have witnessed a tragic accident but not a crime. A horrific death like this strikes me not as criminally negligent parenting, but as an unusually tragic malfunction of the brain. It’s the layman’s terms theory best articulated by Dr. David Diamond, a psychological researcher who has spent the last 15 years studying such deaths. Diamond’s latest paper, published in the March issue of Medicine, Science and the Law, uses neuroscience to explain how such failures of prospective memory — the brain’s ability to execute a plan in the future — can happen to otherwise well-intentioned caregivers. As Diamond explains it, factors like stress and sleep deprivation can cause our brains to fail to “remember to remember” key points.  So can distractions or acting on “autopilot” during habitual behaviors. Diamond uses neuroscience to explain how competing parts of the brain can allow the basal ganglia — which control habitual action — to override the hippocampus and the frontal and parietal cortex, which allow us to follow through on prospective memories. This brain glitch, he said, can erase the intention to remove a child from a car seat. The same brain failure also explains why we forget to flick off our headlights, why cops sometimes leave their guns in the restroom and why I sometimes head to the bedroom to fetch a book or a sweatshirt, only to forget why I came. Diamond has served as an expert witness in several of the more than 400 hot car deaths that have occurred in America over the last 20 years. His opinion: Because the parents lacked the intention to harm their children  – they should not be punished as criminals. My version: While our gut reaction may be to loathe parents who fail so catastrophically, we instead should follow our intellect, not our emotions. Again, absent extenuating circumstances, I would not further punish the parents in the sad tale of this dead Glendale toddler. I understand the impulse to see such parents shamed and jailed. But the cell this mother and father live in forever after will be the one shame and guilt create for them. Surely that will be worse than any sentence we might hand down in memory of the little girl they somehow left behind.

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