Could parents of drowned toddler be charged?
As authorities in Ocean County continue to investigate the tragic death of a 2-year-old Berkeley Township girl who drowned in a neighbor's swimming pool, it is still unclear whether any charges will be filed in the case.
According to former Morris County Prosecutor Bob Bianchi, prosecutors are given a tremendous amount of tools from the Legislature to deal with many types of crimes. He said in situations where parents are suspected of neglecting a child and the youngster dies, a wide range of prosecutions are possible, depending on the specifics of the case.
"It could be everything from aggravated manslaughter, which carries sentences of up to 20 or 30 years in state prison, all the way down to things like manslaughter and child neglect, which have lesser sentencing provisions," he said. "You look at everything, you look at the interests of society, the need for deterrence, but you also have those aspects of compassion and mercy."
Bianchi said the real issue for a prosecutor in this kind of case, is determining what philosophically is the right thing to do?
"The answer isn't always to hit a fly with a sledgehammer, putting someone behind bars for a long period of time," he said. "But a prosecutor will also look at the issue of deterrence."
He said the specifics of the case will always play a central role in determining which way a prosecutor will go.
Former Union County Prosecutor Ted Romankow said parents have custody and control of the child and they are responsible for the child, but whether they endangered the child by letting the child wander outside the house is another story.
"It's not an automatic endangerment case, you have to look at all the circumstance surrounding the actions of the parents, what they were doing at the time," he said.
He also said another consideration on the part of a prosecutor is whether the parents have lost a child.
Romankow added that law enforcement will take into consideration what the mental and physical condition of the parents were at the time the child may have wandered off.
"Even if the parents may have had some kind of a criminal record that doesn't automatically make them targets of any indictment, but it would certainly be a consideration if they were under the influence of drugs or alcohol or some other substance," Romankow said.
Bianchi said in cases where the parents were just inattentive and there wasn't a history of questionable behavior, the prosecutor would be more inclined to show compassion and mercy, knowing they have suffered greatly.
"If they're first offenders and the charges are minor, they probably won't do time behind bars, but if they're charged with aggravated manslaughter or manslaughter and they're convicted of that or plead guilty to that, the likelihood of going to state prison for a long time is virtually a guarantee," Bianchi said.
As for the neighbor with the swimming pool, Bianchi said if it wasn't properly fenced in this could certain open the door to a civil negligence lawsuit being filed, and there could be code violations but on the criminal side it's a little more complex.
"It's because criminal cases typically require that you act purposefully or knowingly before you're charged with a crime, it's going to be really hard to show that that level of recklessness would have led them to believe that this particular victim would wander into their pool," he said. "It would be a very difficult case to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt to 12 jurors."