There are two assumptions by people who have never had to suffer the oddities and ironies of real people in real criminal court. The first is that if there is a dead body, somebody has to pay. The second is that nobody, but nobody, would do something so awful or inexplicable without some malevolent intent. As becomes quickly clear to those of us who serve as janitors of the law, neither life nor people work so neatly. Sometimes, inexplicable tragedies just happen.
There is absolutely nothing to suggest that wasn’t the case for Juan Rodriguez.
By all accounts, he was a doting dad to his year-old, twin son and daughter, setting up a bouncy castle in the yard for their recent first birthday party and dressing them in their latest cute outfits while his wife made breakfast in their Rockland County split-level.
Then, on Saturday, Juan Rodriguez, 39, was hauled handcuffed before a judge, charged with the babies’ hot-car deaths.
Rodriguez was a social worker at a VA hospital, a disabled* Iraq war veteran in his own right. He had three kids, a four-year-old and two beautiful twins, a boy and girl. What happened that day defies reasonable explanation.
He forgot to drop them off at their day care Friday morning, Rodriguez has told cops — and didn’t realize they were still in the back seat when he parked at the Bronx hospital where he’s a social worker, court papers reveal.
Eight hours later, the twins, Luna and Phoenix, registered an internal temperature of 108 degrees when coroners examined their bodies in their car seats.
When asked how this could happen, he had no explanation. What explanation could there be?
“I assumed I dropped them off at day care before I went to work,” Rodriguez told cops at the scene, according to the criminal complaint against him.
“I blanked out!” he cried.
“My babies are dead! I killed my babies!”
He was arrested and arraigned in the Bronx for the deaths of his twins. Bail was set at $100,000 by Bronx Criminal Court Judge Patsy Goldborne, which in itself makes no sense, but his family posted bail within a couple of hours. At arraignment, there was no suggestion of any motive to kill.
“He carried on with his day,” Assistant District Attorney Jaime Breslin told the judge.
“He forgot his children in the seats.”
“This is a tragedy of horrific proportions,” his lawyer, Joey Jackson, told the judge.
The deaths of these year-old infants would be a tragedy under any circumstances. In a better world, no child would die, and certainly never at the hands of their parent. And yet, the tragedy happened, and happened at the hand of a parent who, by all accounts, adored his babies.
It was also a tragedy made inexplicable by Rodriguez’s reputation as a caring father.
How could a dad whose social media is crammed with photos of him snuggling with Luna and Phoenix — and who neighbors universally describe as loving and attentive — have forgotten his twin treasures, all day, in the back seat of his car?
He sounds like a wonderful person, a doting father, and a good man. And yet, his twins were dead.
The police can’t be faulted for the arrest, no matter how sympathetic Rodriguez may be. It’s not their job to determine whether the elements of criminally negligent homicide were met. They were facing two dead children, and the determination of whether this constituted a crime was above their pay grade. Nor can the assistant district attorney handling the arraignment be faulted, as they generally lack the authority to make such calls when there are dead kids.
That said, the decision to seek high bail rests on their shoulders, as well as the judge who granted it. Had Rodriguez not been capable of making bail, this would have been a significant issue. It’s not, but only because he was released.
Was this a crime? This is where the mens rea looms huge. Criminal negligence is defined in Penal Law 15.05(4):
“Criminal negligence.” A person acts with criminal negligence with respect to a result or to a circumstance described by a statute defining an offense when he fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk that such result will occur or that such circumstance exists. The risk must be of such nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.
By that definition, Rodriguez’s inexplicable neglect would constitute the necessary mental state. He clearly failed to perceive a “substantial and unjustifiable risk” that constituted a “gross deviation” from a “reasonable person’s” standard of care. And yet, it’s painfully obvious that this isn’t the sort of tragedy the criminal law was meant to punish, to prohibit.
Rodriguez’s failure to drop his babies off at day wasn’t the product of some moral failing, so outrageous neglect or lack of concern for the welfare of his beloved kids. It just . . . happened.
It remains in the hand of the prosecution to decide not to indict, not to prosecute Juan Rodriguez, as he’s not only a father who has suffered the horrific tragedy of losing his babies, but because his failure falls into some netherworld gap where prosecuting him would serve no societally useful purpose and just be needlessly cruel.
If the prosecution fails to drop the case, there remains a Clayton Motion, dismissal “in the interest of justice,” CPL 210.40, that would allow the court to dismiss an indictment where no purpose is served by imposing sentence. While the other criteria for a Clayton dismissal militate against dismissal, this seems to be the overarching consideration.
Did children die? Yes. Was it utterly needless? Obviously. Is it clear who caused it and that there was no cognizable excuse for it? Sure. But is this the tragedy that should be dealt with in a criminal court?
Juan Rodriguez will suffer the punishment for the rest of his life of knowing that his adored twin babies died because of his neglect. But this tragedy has no place in a criminal courtroom. Sometimes, it’s just a horrible tragedy, even if it meets the elements of a crime.
*What is meant by “disabled’ is a mystery, another victim of euphemistic language the provides no clarity. Was it a physical or mental disability? Did it impact him in this case? It’s unknown.