No one disputes that Lazaro Ramos made a mistake that will haunt him forever.
In September 2012, after a long day at his Doral office, he made the sickening discovery that he had forgotten to take his 6-month-old daughter to day care, leaving her strapped in the child seat of his car.
Under a sweltering South Florida sun, the baby died of heat stroke.
But was his tragic error a crime? A Miami-Dade judge doesn’t think so — and recently dismissed a manslaughter charge against Ramos.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cristina Miranda, in a written ruling released this week, said that while Ramos was negligent, his conduct was not “reckless, gross or flagrant” enough to warrant a criminal charge. Her ruling, which will be appealed by prosecutors, sets up a legal showdown over the criminality of hot-car deaths that happen far too often in South Florida.
“The judge’s decision was wise and courageous,” said Ramos’ defense lawyer, Jordan Lewin. “She really understood that this was a tragic accident, not a crime.”
Said Miami-Dade Chief Assistant State Attorney Kathleen Hoague: “We feel comfortable in our decision to have charged manslaughter in this case. But now that it has been challenged, we will be glad to have some clarity from the higher courts.”
Ramos, 40, of Doral, was arrested in September 2012 for the death of baby daughter Rosalyn Ramos.
The day before, Ramos had not taken his daughter to day care as usual because she had gone to the doctor for a checkup. Then on Sept. 25, 2010, Ramos strapped the baby into the car seat in the back of his Volkswagen Jetta, took his 5-year-old son to school and drove to work.
The girl had likely fallen asleep in the chair, not making any noise as Ramos pulled into his office parking lot.
“Lazaro Ramos mistakenly believed that he had already dropped [Rosalyn] off at day care,” Lewin wrote in his request to dismiss the charge.
More than eight hours later, Ramos left the office, stopped to run a quick errand and then arrived at Doral Academy to pick up his son. That’s when he noticed the baby’s bag in the back seat of the car. “He immediately began to scream out for help and for someone to call 911,” Lewin wrote.
Paramedics were unable to revive the child, who died of hyperthermia, or heat stroke. The distraught father cooperated fully with detectives.
Ramos was a “devoted and competent parent” but for that one day, Lewin argued.
But prosecutors argued that Ramos’ reckless conduct was that he had been distracted by work phone calls during the fateful commute. Judge Miranda disagreed, saying that while his conduct was negligent, it was not egregious enough to amount to “culpable negligence.”
“In fact, there is no evidence that any specific distraction was the cause of the defendant forgetting the child in the car,” Miranda wrote. “This event reflects a one-time memory lapse that led to a tragic conclusion.”
Amber Rollins, director of Kids and Cars, a Kansas-based organization for the prevention of non-traffic, car-related deaths, hailed the decision in the Ramos case.
“We are happy the charges were dropped in this case. Criminalizing something like this only makes the issue worse,” Rollins said. “There is no jail sentence or probation that will begin to compare to the hell these parents put themselves through because they have to live with the fact that their failure took the life of their child in a horrific way.”
In an era of increasing distractions from cell phones and social media, the organization says unattended hot-car deaths have risen since the 1990s. One main reason: the introduction of cars equipped with passenger-seat airbags that could kill children. Now, rear-facing car seats, which often look the same empty or not, are recommended for infants.
So far this year, there have been 43 similar child deaths nationwide — with four in Florida, which ranks only behind Texas in the number of hot-car child deaths in recent years.
To be sure, the facts of each case are unique.
In August 2011, prosecutors charged a Homestead day care worker, Lelier Perez Hernandez, after he allegedly left a toddler inside a hot van. The twist: Perez Hernandez, when he discovered the dead child, took the boy’s body out and left him on the sidewalk in an attempt to hide the mistake, police say.
He is awaiting trial for manslaughter and tampering with evidence.
The most recent Miami-Dade case is that of Catalina Bruno, of Kendall, who police say left her 11-month-old son inside her Chevrolet Impala outside her West Miami-Dade home. But unlike Ramos, Bruno had a history of reckless misconduct involving her children.
At the time of the baby’s death, Bruno had been out of jail on bond on a drunken-driving charge after police earlier found her passed out in her car. The head of the child was wedged between two seats. Officers found an open beer can in the center console.
Kids and Cars estimates that only about half of all cases nationwide result in criminal charges.
In Broward County in 2010, a preacher left his 1-year-old daughter to die inside a hot car outside their Miramar church; prosecutors have yet to decide on potential charges.
The county was also the site of the most egregious in recent years: In March 2005, Antonio Balta, a Gulfstream Park horse groomer who left his baby girl strapped inside a hot Pontiac Grand Prix so he could bet on the races, was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
In most cases, however, prison time is rare.
In August 2010, Maytee Martinez’s 3-year-old son died when she left him inside a hot car in South Miami-Dade. Charged with aggravated manslaughter, she received 10 years probation.
Also sentenced to 10 years probation: South Miami-Dade’s Yunia Perez, who left 7-month-old Philip Gutmann in a minivan for several hours in August 2002. Perez had forgotten to take the boy to day care.