- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 11, 2002

At what point does an overextended parent become a criminal? That's the question a jury will decide when presented with the case of Kevin C. Kelly of Manassas, Va. Mr. Kelly, the father of 13, was charged last week with child neglect and involuntary manslaughter in the death of his youngest daughter, Frances Kelly. The 19-month-old was inadvertently left for seven hours in the family's van while it sat in the driveway and died of heat stroke as a result. Commonwealth's Attorney Paul B. Ebert said that "the facts in this case justified taking it in front of the grand jury, and the grand jury agreed. Although I have sympathy [for Mr. Kelly], someone has to have a voice for that dead infant."

However, there is such a thing as criminal intent and that is clearly lacking in the case of this tragic accident. By all accounts, the Kelly family is a tightly knit, religious one and Mr. Kelly himself a devoted father. No one, not even Mr. Ebert, has suggested malign intent of any kind. The death of Frances Kelly was clearly an accident and Mr. Kelly certainly poses no threat to his other children, or to society at large. Charging him with felonies will only add to the family's anguish and potentially leave the Kelly children without their father. Mr. Kelly faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted on all counts.

"Prosecuting Kevin Kelly … won't prevent any further tragedy from happening," said Virginia Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Prince William County Republican. "I just don't see how a criminal prosecution does anything but drag the family through hell for a second time." Mr. Marshall went on to argue that the criminal negligence alleged by the commonwealth's attorney simply isn't there. "The standard for what constitutes gross criminal negligence is extremely high," he said. "When a person roars through a red light at 110-miles-per-hour and kills someone, that's gross criminal negligence." In such a case, the driver knows full well that he is threatening the lives of others and willfully chooses to subject them to that risk. Mr. Kelly, in contrast, lost track of what was happening that day.

Mr. Kelly's actions, while clearly irresponsible, do not rise to the level of willful criminality, as implied by the manslaughter and child-neglect charges filed against him. The Kelly family has suffered a terrible loss. Compounding the tragedy by pursuing Kevin Kelly as if he were a dangerous man serves no good purpose. The charges against him ought to be dropped.

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