Opinion: When child’s death draws less outrage than Harambe

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CINCINNATI, Ohio — When I hear people are reeling over the death of Harambe, the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, I am reminded of the overwhelming level of interest and empathy I so often saw in cases involving nonhuman victims.

As a prosecutor, I routinely confronted child abusers, rapists and murderers. Strangely, when I would relay even the most horrific details, the reaction by juries was always tempered. Sure, people winced, grimaced or exhaled. And if I my delivery was charismatic enough, my audience might even muster a tear.

But when I had an animal as victim? Please. I could have simply held up a dog biscuit during my opening statement and secured a unanimous verdict within minutes — complete with waterworks. Frankly, the level of concern that one would expect for an act against a human child pales in comparison to the universal cries for justice when an animal is hurt.

Now I don’t profess to be a vegan — and I certainly don’t have an appetite for cruelty. But I feel the need to rub my temples with exhaustion when I see the city of Cincinnati in complete turmoil over the death of Harambe.

This is a city a stone’s throw from Cleveland, where a human being and child, was gunned down because two officers believed his appearance made his actions unpredictable. There were other means of assessing whether he was indeed dangerous and neutralizing his perceived menace without resorting to lethal means. Instead, he was shot multiple times — and he didn’t pose an immediate threat to anyone.

Think me jaded? Within 48 hours of Harambe’s death, a petition calling for criminal charges against the parents of the unidentified 3-year-old boy received more than 330,000 signatures. After more than 18 months, a petition calling for the indictment of Officers Timothy Loehmann and Frank Garmback in the killing of Tamir Rice has received less than 120,000 signatures. Case in point.

Interestingly enough, the rationale of the zoo officials is eerily familiar. They are in a unique position to appreciate the day-to-day danger in a given community. They had a split second to assess a dangerous situation and swiftly concluded that employing nonlethal tactics would be far too risky when dealing with that community’s population.

But this time, there isn’t even a national outcry for Harambe’s killers to be criminally investigated. Instead, the lynch mob demands that the child’s parents be criminally charged and prosecuted. Why? Parents can be liable for the actions of their children and can be charged with neglect by failing to supervise them adequately.

To be sure, it defies logic that a child could be adequately supervised and still navigate the extensive obstacles put in place to prevent this very thing. But it would also defy logic to prosecute that child’s parents for Harambe’s unforeseeable death in this case. It would be akin to prosecuting the mother whose child runs into traffic to retrieve a ball and causes a fatal accident.

The neglect statutes are designed to punish inadequate and dangerous child-rearing practices that are emotionally or physically harmful. They are not, without more evidence, designed to punish a lapse in judgment that caused a third party to make an independent decision to kill the gorilla.

Now, do I want a member of an endangered species to be killed? Of course not. Harambe should absolutely be alive today. Do I think criminal neglect charges should be brought against parents who lose track of their curious and perhaps mischievous aspiring Mowgli at a zoo? Of course not.

A human being was in danger of being killed by a 450-pound gorilla who had already repeatedly dragged the child underwater. Whether you like it or not, the choice was clear. That’s the problem with hierarchies.

Editor note: Laura Coates is a CNN legal analyst. She is a former assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia and trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. The views expressed are her own.

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