Skip to main content

I, too, left my child in a hot car

By Sunny Hostin
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Thu June 26, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Justin Ross Harris' toddler son died, left in a hot car while Harris went to work
  • Sunny Hostin left her baby in a car on a hot day, but quickly realized it and ran back
  • Children die every year from being left in hot cars by mistake; 44 died in 2013
  • Hostin: If it was a mistake, Harris should not face charges. Anguish will be punishment

Editor's note: Sunny Hostin is CNN's legal analyst. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sunny Hostin.

(CNN) -- I left my daughter in my car on a hot summer day. It was in July 2007, and I remember that day as if it were yesterday.

My husband and I drove to Home Depot. I wanted to buy herbs for my new garden. He wanted to buy power tools. Our 5-year-old son stayed behind with my mother, but we decided to bring our 14-month-old baby girl along. She was cranky that day, and a car ride always soothed her and made her fall asleep.

Warrant: Father visited hot car at lunch
Police looking into toddler's death

We strapped her into a rear-facing baby seat -- they're safer. We parked, turned off the ignition, closed the sun roof tight and locked the doors. I went to get a shopping cart while my husband stood by the car waiting. We then walked together past the car and toward the crowded Home Depot.

Walking into the garden center, my husband turned to me and said: "My God. We left Paloma in the car." I screamed, dropped my purse, ran to the car and opened the door. The car was already warm. Her face already flushed. But she was fine and still sleeping. I was ashamed, embarrassed and horrified at what I had done.

It dawned on me immediately -- I could have killed my girl.

But the son of Justin Ross Harris, 22-month-old Cooper, did die. Harris left Cooper in a hot car, strapped to his rear-facing seat in Atlanta last week, when he went into work at a Home Depot corporate office, according to a Cobb County criminal warrant.

Witnesses describe Harris' reaction as very distressed, as he repeatedly asked: "What have I done?" But investigators have implied that this might have been premeditated. Police are still investigating, but Harris has pleaded not guilty to charges of child cruelty and felony murder. If he is convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.

But what if this was just a tragic accident -- the type of accident that happens every single year? In 2013, 44 children died from vehicle-induced heat stroke. About 450 children in the U.S. have died this way since 1998.

"It's reasonable to call this an epidemic," says memory expert David Diamond, a scientist at the Veterans' Hospital in Tampa, Florida, who is often consulted on such cases. "It happens, on average, once a week from spring to early fall."

Parents everywhere are talking about the Harris tragedy -- in restaurants, in homes and on social media -- and many want him prosecuted even if this was an accident.

On Facebook, Matthew Leahla Wierson writes: "If he's not punished for his gross negligence, then that sends a get-out-of-jail-free card to all parents who are evil and want to murder their children."

Stephanie Lowry writes: "It's beyond me how ANY parent can forget their baby in a car! I was 15 when I had my first son and NEVER managed to even ALMOST forget either one of my THREE boys! EVER!"

Sunny Hostin
Sunny Hostin

Before I left Paloma in that hot car, I would have agreed with Matthew and Stephanie. I would have said that you must prosecute even those parents who leave their kids in a hot car accidentally because you must send a message to parents that they have an obligation to protect their children.

Before I left Paloma in that hot car, I would have said that the anguish that this parent would feel is not enough of a punishment. Had you asked me about one of these cases, I would have told you that I am a watchful mother and would never, ever do that.

But I left her. My husband did, too.

If Justin Harris left his son accidentally, he should not face charges. Period. How can you prosecute a parent for accidentally leaving a child in a car? There is no crime. There is no intent. And trust me, his anguish will be punishment enough.

I punish myself all the time for leaving my girl in that car for a few minutes. So I'm reserving judgment on this one. I need more facts. Is there a history of abuse? A bitter divorce and custody battle? Internet searches for how to kill a child?

Is there evidence of intent -- or was this the case of a hardworking, harried, watchful, loving, adoring, protective parent who made a horrible mistake?

I hope by coming forward, I have prevented another parent from saying the words that are so hard for me to say: "I left my child in a car on a hot summer day."

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT