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 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Sally Kohn says the Ferguson protests reflect broader patterns of racial injustice across the country, from chronic police violence and abuse against black men to the persistent economic and social exclusion of communities of color.
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT