Eric Cropp was a pharmacist who was sent to prison for a mistake that resulted in the death of a child.
This was a high profile case, but it was just one of many examples of a disturbing trend I’ve seen in the U.S. in recent years: a person commits a mistake–with no malicious intent and without being under the influence of drugs or alcohol–somebody then dies or is seriously injured as a result of the mistake. Because of the bad outcome, criminal charges are then filed, and the ‘perpetrator’ is often sent to prison.
I’m bringing up this issue because of a recent case that exemplifies my concern.
A recent article from Yahoo! News describes the recent tragedy. It happened at Extreme World, an amusement park in the Wisconsin Dells. Terminal Velocity is a ride where patrons free-fall about 100 feet into a net. The net is then lowered gently to the ground when the ride is over.
Recently a 12 year-old girl went on the ride, but the 33 year-old ride operator (who had worked at the amusement park since age 16 and was a “certified dive master” who had been on a Travel Channel piece about the ride) screwed up. He allegedly failed to raise the net before the girl dropped 100 feet. The girl therefore fell onto the net that was resting on the pavement. After the fall, she was unconscious, was transported to a medical center by helicopter, and is believed to be paralyzed.
The ride operator has been charged with first-degree reckless injury, a felony that carries a 25-year prison sentence.
Was he drunk or high? As far as we know, no.
Did he do it on purpose? It’s highly unlikely.
The other riders said Carnell began to scream and hit his head with his fists. He got on his park radio and told someone he had just killed the girl, that it was his fault and he should go to jail. He also asked for his pastor to come to the park.
Investigators found Carnell lying against a wall, holding his head.
“I hurt somebody bad,” the report said he told detectives, adding, “I just keep seeing her eyes. I see her eyes rolling back in her head.”
He said he blanked out and didn’t know why he didn’t look for the ground operator’s all-clear signal.
“I know better,” he said. “I should do it. I have no reason why I didn’t do it.”
Now, if one of my kids were seriously injured or killed in similar circumstances, would I want criminal charges to be filed? Honestly, I don’t know. But I do know that I’d be one of the least objective persons to answer that question under those circumstances.
I completely understand if the victim’s family files a civil lawsuit against the ride operator and amusement park. But, based on what I know about this case, I see no reason why criminal charges are warranted. The ride operator was clearly remorseful. I’ll bet that his life will be forever changed in a negative way simply by having to live with what happened. I’ve met plenty of incarcerated psychopaths who didn’t give a damn about any of their victims. Although I have not examined this person and therefore cannot comment on his psychiatric state, from the media reports he sounds like he cares.
I realize that there’s a grieving and understandably angry family in this case. They want justice. I understand that, and I don’t blame them at all. I don’t want to minimize, even a little, the magnitude of their situation.
But is one of the purposes of our criminal justice system to right every wrong, even if the act were an honest mistake, albeit with a very bad outcome? Every time someone really screws up, we can criminalize what they’ve done and re-balance the unfairness of the universe! Seriously, though, isn’t that what civil courts exist for in cases like this?
Where does it stop — where do we draw the line on criminalizing mistakes? You’d better not drive your car — you might get into an accident and go to prison! If you’re a physician and commit an honest mistake, then all of the knowledge, conscientiousness and due diligence in the world may not keep you off the radar of an over-zealous prosecutor. As a society, where are we going with this — what are we thinking?
Jeffrey Knuppel is a psychiatrist who blogs at The Positive Medical Blog. This post originally appeared on Lockup Doc.
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