Thursday, October 20, 2005
If a woman who cannot swim leaps into a rain-swollen creek and saves the life of a friend's toddler, she is a hero. If instead she yells for help to the child's father, she's a typical mortal.
What she's not is a criminal. Falling short of heroism is no crime. Making it one, as occurred recently in Blair County, sets a dangerous precedent.
The Blair County district attorney prosecuted a nonswimmer, Susan Newkirk, for endangering the welfare of a child after she summoned a 2-year-old's father to rescue him rather than leaping herself into South Poplar Run after Hurricane Ivan turned it into a torrent in September 2004.
A jury convicted Ms. Newkirk in July and a judge sentenced her to jail this month for a year and a half.
Blair District Attorney Dave Gorman said Ms. Newkirk had a duty to try to save the child and insisted it was irrelevant that she couldn't swim because two other people, including a nonswimmer, attempted a rescue. Apparently it is irrelevant to Mr. Gorman that they failed. The child died.
Apparently it is also irrelevant that American Red Cross life guarding instructors warn the strong swimmers who are their students never to leap in unprepared. There is no point in two people dying, these instructors caution. Still, tragically, people perish that way every year.
The boy's father, Thomas E. Reffner, was not paying Ms. Newkirk to watch his child and hadn't asked her to supervise him. Still, when the boy first got close to the creek, she took him back to his father. Later, she returned to the creek; the youngster toddled after her and fell in.
It's a stretch to argue that a nonswimmer has a moral obligation to risk her life to rescue another person. It's dangerous to take that a step further and hold her to the higher standard of criminal responsibility.
Where does it stop? Could passersby be sent to jail for not running into flaming buildings or not pulling a driver from a burning car? We agree with David Herring, a professor of child welfare law at the University of Pittsburgh, that this is an "aggressive prosecution."
Ms. Newkirk is in jail while her public defender is appealing the conviction. Not just for her, but for everyone's sake, let's hope she wins.