Did He Kill His Daughter?

For Ramiro de Jesus Rodriguez of Hialeah, Fla., the worst nightmare of all only gets worse.

Last Aug. 3, Rodriguez and his wife, Carmen, drove to a nearby market to buy groceries and some medicine for their sick 3-year-old. The child, Veronica, was miserable and her safety-restraint seat was in the other car, so Carmen put her in her lap in the front seat of the '78 Chevy. On the way home, Rodriguez made a left turn into the path of an approaching van. In the crash, Veronica went hurtling into the dashboard and windshield. She died four hours later of massive head injuries. Her funeral was in Nicaragua, where she was born - but her parents, both recent immigrants, couldn't afford to attend.

Now, a still-grieving Rodriguez finds himself in legal trouble: he's about to stand trial for killing his daughter, the little girl he called "Vero." Two months after the accident, the Dade County state's attorney charged her father with vehicular homicide, a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Proving mere carelessness won't do; to convict, the prosecution must convince a jury that the 30-year-old Rodriguez operated his car "in a reckless manner likely to cause death or great bodily harm to another." The state's theory: Rodriguez was reckless not only in making a dangerous turn (for which he never received a summons), but in failing to put his child in a safety seat. Such legal finesse escapes Rodriguez, who speaks no English and left school after fourth grade. "I don't understand," he says. "Maybe they wanted to make an example of me, but they should've picked someone who was drugged or drunk. This could have happened to anyone." His wife suggests something more sinister. "The only reason they are prosecuting this," she says, "is that we are not from here."

Florida, like all states and many foreign countries, requires that youngsters wear at least a seat belt when traveling in automobiles. The civil penalty for violating the law in Florida is a mere $27 to $37, depending on the age of the child. If the Rodriguez trial goes forward, it apparently will be the first time that any person in the United States has faced jail time for a seatbelt offense. (Similar charges were brought early last year against a man in southern California, but they were dropped after intense adverse publicity.) "I think you'll see more prosecutions along this line," says Lt. Noel Roy, information officer for the Florida Highway Patrol in Dade County. "It's terrible for the people involved, but if you can make people think about the consequences, it will save lives. Kids can't make their own decisions."

Rodriguez's lawyer argues that using his client to send such a message to parents is cruel and in any event futile. "His kid was sick and he went to get medicine," says Reemberto Diaz of Hialeah. "You really think anyone in that position is going to carefully think about the risk of putting the girl in her mother's lap? I don't know why they selected this case." The prosecutor handling the case denies that any calculation - political, psychological or racial - went into her decision to prosecute. "The police officer brought me the report and asked if this was a case that could be filed," recalls Sally Weintraub. "I decided it was. That was the only basis on which to go forward."

Even as a warning to parents, the case seems superfluous. Consumer groups began advocating mandatory car restraints 20 years ago, and nationwide compliance for children under 5 was an impressive 81 percent in 1989 - with 197 children's lives saved and thousands of injuries prevented, according to the Department of Transportation (chart). "Car seats are virtually a vaccine against the leading cause of death to kids," says Chuck Hurley of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

While Hurley won't comment directly on the Rodriguez prosecution, he clearly has no sympathy for the defense. "It simply isn't justifiable for a child to be unbelted for any reason whatsoever," he says. "If a child is too sick to be buckled, they're too sick to be in the car." But longtime child-safety-seat advocate Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety is appalled. "We never contemplated this," he says. "If you're going to bring a case, it shouldn't be a borderline one. This is."

The trial of Ramiro Rodriguez is scheduled to begin Jan. 28. The prosecutor promises that no amount of public pressure will cause the case to be abandoned. The defense lawyer promises no plea to any charge, even though prosecutors acknowledge that Rodriguez realistically faces only minimal time behind bars. The Nicaraguan community in the Miami area has raised $1,200 for the defense. The chief fund raiser is Vicente Amela, host of the local Nicaraguan radio talk show "Here, Central America." "We understand that the law is the law," he says. "But we are supporting him because he already has learned his lesson: he lost his child."

And what of Ramiro Rodriguez? He came to the United States by bus through Mexico and then illegally across the border. He came to go from "communism to freedom." And now? "If this gets cleaned up, we will only stay here long enough to make some more money. Then we're going back to Nicaragua."

In 1979, only 15 percent of all kids sat in car seats; now some 81 percent use the devices.

Year Number of Children's Lives Saved AGES 0-4

1979 30 1984 111 1989 197