Free-Range Kids

Hot Cars and Halloween Candies Don't Kill Many Kids

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Halloween candy
Tlapunkin / Wikimedia Commons

A grand jury has indicted the Georgia man whose toddler died of heat stroke after being left in the SUV for seven hours in June. Justin Ross Harris, 33, faces charges of murder, child cruelty, and sexual exploitation of a child (not his son, a 16-year-old girl he sexted that same day). Harris could face the death penalty if convicted.

He could also become this generation's Ronald O'Bryan, the man put to death for poisoning his son with a Pixy Stix on Halloween, 1974.

The connection?

Consider this: Harris is alleged to have researched hot car deaths online, as well as child-free living. Presumably the case will be made that he planned to make his son's death look like an accident. Hyperthermia has gotten so much attention in the media, it now seems almost common. While about 30-40 kids die this way each year, or literally one in a million children under age ten, if you watch TV it feels like it's happening right and left. Harris might—only might—have thought: Who's going to question just one more?

Which brings us to Ronald O'Bryan: In January of 1974, O'Bryan took out an insurance policy on both his children. He took out an additional policy a month before Halloween, and yet another policy just a few days before the holiday. What's more, a chemist who testified in court said O'Bryan had been asking him about cyanide.

Add to this the fact O'Bryan was in debt and allegedly about to be fired, and the fact he said that the stranger who had given out the poisoned Pixy Stix only stuck his arm out the door, so no one ever saw his face.

It took the jury less than an hour to convict him. He was put to death by lethal injection.

O'Bryan appears to have believed that so many kids get poisoned on Halloween, who's going to question just one more? But the actual number of kids killed by a stranger's candy on Halloween was, and remains, zero.

If a jury decides that Harris deliberately left his son to die after researching toddler heat stroke, it could be another case of a dad believing that a certain much-discussed type of child tragedy is so common, one more would be just a sad statistic. But the fact is: hyperthermia is not that common, thank goodness. In fact, far more children die after being taken out of cars, in parking lots. We are just so obsessed by the idea that any child waiting in a car is in immediate danger that we have lost all perspective.

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Of course, Harris is innocent until proven guilty, so I don't want to belabor the point. And in fact, if you looked at all the crazy things I Google on a daily basis, you would take me for a pedophile with a squirrel fetish and chocolate chip cookie obsession. An online trail is not a smoking gun.

What's more, throwing in the "sexual exploitation of a child" charge as if it had anything to do with the hyperthermia case smacks of damning the guy with the charges. If I were charged with drunk driving, would it matter if I also wasn't paying my taxes?

So the case has a lot of disturbing angles on both sides. But one thing is true. When we are fed a steady diet of rare child tragedies in the media, they stop looking rare to all of us: parents and cops, judges and juries, evildoers and the innocent.