In the chaos within the raging waters brought by Hurricane Florence last month, 20 year-old mother Dazia Lee was headed to her grandmother’s house, with her one year old son Kaiden in the back seat of her car. She saw some orange barrels along her route, but traffic coming was coming at her from the opposite directionr. She stopped, thought for a moment, and reasoned that if cars were coming from that direction it was likely safe. It was the wrong way to go. Ms. Lee’s vehicle was soon overcome by the floodwaters, and she scrambled to escape. One can only imagine the fear and desperation she felt as she took her baby from his car seat and struggled out into the whirling maelstrom. But Florence’s wrath was more powerful than her ability to protect her little boy; she tripped and fell, and he was ripped from her arms and washed away. His little body was found the next morning.
The tragedy made headlines, one of many horrifying stories to emerge in Florence’s aftermath, all while the young mother grieved. Her story made it to the Washington Post; the country surely grieved with her. The horrific situation in which Dazia Lee found herself is unfathomable.
But the Union County Sheriff’s Department believes Dazia Lee is a criminal, responsible for the death of her son. This week, it charged her with involuntary manslaughter for her baby’s death, citing her alleged disregard of barricades. In North Carolina, involuntary manslaughter is a felony defined as the killing of a person by another, “by an unlawful act that does not amount to a felony and is not ordinarily dangerous to life, or by a culpably negligent act or omission.”
Meanwhile, in South Carolina, a transport van driven by corrections officers from another sheriff’s department also reportedly ignored some barricades during Florence’s floods. Two passengers, both of them women seeking mental health treatment, were left to die when the van was consumed by rising waters and after deputies gave up their futile efforts to free them. They have lost their jobs; to date, they have not been charged. The involuntary manslaughter statute in South Carolina differs in wording from that in North Carolina, but the substance is the same: death resulting from criminal negligence.
One wonders whether two white law enforcement officers will be held to the same standards being applied to a young black mother. Or, for that matter, will any of the other individuals who disregarded the directives of authorities during a natural disaster and resulted in death or injury to another face consequences?
Dazia Lee will forever live with the devastating knowledge that she made the wrong choice and her baby died. She will, for the rest of her life, relive those moments when she lost her grip on him and he was taken by the waters. Authorities want to further punish her by making her a felon, a life-ruining consequence. Was she negligent, in stopping her vehicle, assessing the situation and coming to a decision? If cooler heads don’t prevail, a jury will make that decision.
There is such a thing as prosecutorial discretion; not every person whose actions may sorta, possibly, maybe fit the elements of a criminal statute must be charged. Mitigating factors can be considered. That is to say, a prosecutor has the power to look at the facts of this case and decide that Ms. Lee’s miscalculation, amidst the chaotic backdrop of a natural disaster, put her in a terrible situation and that she has paid a high enough price for it.
There is room for compassion in the law; let’s hope it can be extended to Lee in the same way that it was extended to two corrections officers.