Mother of 4-month-old charged with manslaughter in infant's death

Aug 12, 2013
Katherine Elizabeth Papke

The mother of a 4-month-old boy who died Friday afternoon was charged with manslaughter, making her the first Anniston resident and among the first in the state charged with a new law regarding leaving a child unattended in a car.

Katherine Elizabeth Papke, 35, of Anniston, was charged with manslaughter and leaving a child unattended in a motor vehicle, both felonies, in connection with the death of her son, Bennett Owen Smith.

Anniston police Sgt. Chris Sparks told reporters today that the infant was discovered Friday in a parking lot on the 400 block of Goode Road at McClellan. The incident occurred between noon and 2 p.m., according to a police report. Sparks said Anniston police, emergency medical services and Anniston firefighters responded to an emergency call about an unresponsive 4-month-old.

The child was taken to Regional Medical Center, Sparks said, and was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Sparks said police were still waiting this afternoon to find out the cause of death from the infant’s preliminary autopsy report from the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences in Huntsville.

Pat Brown, Calhoun County coroner, said Friday that the child’s death stemmed from heat exposure.

Exactly how long Smith was left inside his mother’s car on Friday is still under investigation, Sparks said. He said charges filed for Papke’s arrest were under the discretion of Calhoun County District Attorney Brian McVeigh. McVeigh said today he could not comment on pending cases.

“Any case involving a child is always difficult,” Sparks said. “It’s awful to see a child injured or hurt in any way shape or form.”

Sparks said Papke was taken to the Anniston Police Department for questioning Friday afternoon and arrested shortly after.

Papke was released on a $100,000 bond Saturday from the Anniston City Jail. A court appearance is set for Sept. 16.

Papke was meeting with investigators this morning at the Anniston Police Department. The mother told a reporter she was advised by her lawyer not to speak about her child’s death.

New state law

Papke is the first person charged by Anniston police with leaving a child unattended in a motor vehicle, and likely the only person in the state charged under the law in the death of a child since the law was enacted Aug. 1.

The law, known as the Amiyah White Motor Vehicle Act, states that if a child dies from being left inside a car the person responsible is guilty of a Class B felony. The law was sponsored by Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile and named for a 2-year-old girl who died in 2005 after she was forgotten inside a van in Mobile.

Smith’s death is the third this summer in Alabama and 26th nationwide stemming from heat exposure from being left inside a car, according to Amber Rollins, director and volunteer manager of Kids and Cars. Kids and Cars is a national child safety nonprofit organization based in Kansas City, Mo. Rollins said the two other deaths occurred in July in Mobile and Homewood.

Most of the cases Kids and Cars see stems from the southern part of the country, Rollins said, with Texas ranked highest. The organization has documented 13 deaths of children left in hot cars in Alabama since 1995, she said.

In about half of such cases, the person responsible for leaving a child in a car is prosecuted, Rollins said.

“What we have seen is there’s no rhyme or reason for why they are charged, if they are charged,” Rollins said. “You can take two exactly identical incidents and in one case they’re charged and the other they’re not.”

The difference depends on who is investigating the case and whether or not they empathize with the parent’s mistake, she said.

Heat-stroke death in children has increased significantly since the mid 1990s, Rollins said, around the time it was recommended that children ride in cars’ back seats to prevent death from front-seat airbag deployment.

“We think it’s because children are out of sight that they may be unknowingly left behind more frequently,” Rollins said.

Rollins recommended that parents leave an item they always take with them in the back seat with their child, such as a cellphone or laptop. Rollins said forcing a parent to “look before they lock” can save a child’s life. She also recommends that a daycare or childcare provider call a parent if a child has not arrived on time.

Denyse Spruill, owner and director of the McClellan Child Development Center, said Papke’s 4-month-old son was supposed to be at the daycare center on Friday.

“She just forgot to drop him off,” Spruill said

Papke regularly dropped off her son each morning, Spruill said, and occasionally brought her two school-aged daughters to the program.

Spruill said she did not how long Smith was left in the vehicle.

The woman described Papke as one of her “best parents.”

“It’s very shocking to us because she is fabulous with her kids,” Spruill said.

Rollins said it’s important for all parents to realize this tragedy could happen to them.

“Everyone thinks they’re not capable of it. It happens to loving, caring responsible parents and it could happen to anybody. We all have the same human brains that fail us when we least expect it,” she said.

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