Fla. judge acquits father in death of girl not in car seat

May 04, 1991|By Knight-Ridder News Service

MIAMI -- A father accused of killing his 3-year-old daughter in a traffic accident by failing to strap her in a car seat was acquitted of vehicular homicide yesterday.

Moments after the state rested its controversial case, Dade Circuit Judge Sidney B. Shapiro ruled that prosecutors had failed to prove Ramiro de Jesus Rodriguez drove recklessly and with a "willful or wanton" disregard for the safety of his daughter, Veronica.

"It is the opinion of this court that the evidence is insufficient to warrant a conviction for the offense of vehicular homicide," Judge Shapiro said from the bench. "The charges of vehicular homicide are dismissed."

As the words were translated into Spanish, Mr. Rodriguez slouched in his chair and raised his eyes toward the ceiling. He took a deep breath. He hugged his defense lawyer, Reemberto Diaz, his wife, Carmen, and 20 family members and friends.

Afterward, even though he had won his case, Mr. Rodriguez talked only of loss.

"The prosecutors acted as if I hadn't lost anything, and I had lost very much," said Mr. Rodriguez, a 31-year-old Nicaraguan immigrant. "I lost my little girl."

He said the weeklong trial was particularly painful because several witnesses spoke in graphic detail about the severe head injuries that the child he called "Vero" had suffered in the accident.

Several times Thursday and again yesterday, Mr. Rodriguez wept openly at the defense table.

The six jurors never got the opportunity to judge him. If they had, their comments suggested, they might have had trouble reaching a unanimous verdict. Two jurors said they believed that Mr. Rodriguez was guilty. Two said they were leaning toward acquitting him.

"Thank God it's over," said juror Apryl Floyd, a special education teacher. "The man suffered enough."

"I think the law was broken," said juror Perry Altfield, a K mart employee. "We should have been given an opportunity to make a decision. I thought we would have a chance to send out a message: 'If you have a child-restraint seat, use it.' "

In granting the defense's motion for judgment of acquittal, Judge Shapiro rejected the premise that the state used to charge Mr. Rodriguez with vehicular homicide. The charge was a hybrid of two traffic infractions: failing to yield to an oncoming car and failing to strap a child in a car safety seat.

"The question is whether the two infractions together equate to a crime," the judge said. "This court does not believe they do." He concluded that Mr. Rodriguez's "actions do not rise to the level of 'reckless.' "

Mr. Rodriguez testified during the trial that at the time of the crash Aug. 3, Veronica was being held by her mother because the child had a fever and rash. The family was returning from a store after buying liquid Tylenol for the girl. When the car was struck by a van at an intersection, Veronica hit the --board. She died later at the hospital.

Judge Shapiro's surprising order derailed the controversial prosecution by the Dade County state attorney's office. Mr. Rodriguez had faced a maximum of five years in prison, if convicted, but prosecutors had said they were seeking only probation.

"We thought it was a good-faith prosecution," prosecutor Sally Weintraub said. "The decision to file charges in this case was made with much difficulty, and not for the purpose of putting a man through the wringer, as it was suggested."

The national pretrial publicity focused on Mr. Rodriguez's failure to strap his daughter in a child-restraint seat as required by Florida law, an offense punishable by a $37 fine.

States increasingly are legislating stricter auto safety measures hTC for young children, and Mr. Rodriguez's case is believed to be the first to go to trial for violation of such a law, attorneys said.

In 1983 in Cincinnati, a man was acquitted of vehicular homicide in the death of his 2-year-old son, who fell out of the door of a pickup truck. But the man was not charged under Ohio's child-restraint law.

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