During the week of July 26, millions of Americans were shocked and saddened to learn the unfolding news of a living nightmare in the Bronx, NY. At first we learnt that two precious one-year-old twins–Luna and Phoenix Rodriguez–died together while sitting for 8 hours strapped into an overheated car. Then we learnt of the anguished screams of their father Juan Rodriguez, when he casually returned to this car after 8 hours at work, surprised to find his two dead children in the back seat, and realized he was the one responsible for their deaths. When police were called, they arrested Rodriguez for possible manslaughter of his two children. [See Note 1 below.]
Millions of Americans naturally asked themselves many questions, based on these surface facts: What can be a deeper tragedy than a father losing his two dear children, and being the one solely responsible for their death? How on earth could he have done this? Can he ever forgive himself? Can this family’s lives ever be the same? If this may be a murder in disguise, will this family’s dad now spend the rest of his life in jail?
There is simply nothing good about this multi-level nightmare. But on a deeper level, we can see at least three very diverse reasons for wonderful optimism as the week unfolded–because of psychological science, the law, and the human spirit.
1. Psychological science. How on earth can a parent casually forget his two infants in the back seat for 8 hours? None of us can understand this–least of all Rodriguez himself, as police found him screaming in anguished disbelief. But Dr. David Diamond is a Professor of Psychology at who knows better.  Dr. Diamond’s years of research found that this tragedy is not unique, but surprisingly common.  “Since 1998, about 440 children nationwide have died of heatstroke after being forgotten in cars, generally not because of a lack of love,… but because of how human memory functions.” Through his research, this scientist understands this tragic behavior much better than the people involved, and he often advises judges and juries of the factors involved, that even the most loving care-takers can become confused or forgetful in certain situations. Of course this is a great relief for all involved, as this scientific research clarifies why memory fails, and how this can be prevented in the future.
But should the law excuse an individual’s behavior simply because we can explain its origins? If two children are dead, should someone be punished? Of course there is no way to ask those two precious infants whether or not they want their father to be punished for their death. Who should decide?
2. The law. Back in 1789, the Founders of this Republic were acutely aware of the importance of how courts decide responsibility, so three of the first ten Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are careful to guarantee a right to “trial by a jury of one’s peers,” rather than any single person or government officials. So even in a highly charged case like this one, the decision could not be more carefully made. The prosecutor vigorously represents the state, and the welfare of these two infants. The defense represents the dad. Then a Bronx grand jury of 23 people independently weigh the facts, and decide.
In this case, the court was filled with Rodriguez’s family and supporters for his arraignment on August 1. His wife Marissa noted that she desperately needed her husband, who was a military veteran and social worker, who was a loving father of all five of his children. He was serving others in the Veteran’s Administration building during all 8 hours while his forgotten children were dying. It was clear here that no one wanted this family to lose its dad along with its two infants, but the jury will decide.
3. The human spirit. Is Rodriguez’s life over now? Happily, No. Our behavioral research at Fordham University has identified a phenomenon known as “homicide activism.” When people lose a family member to violence, the grief becomes so intense that a small fraction of these people are able to transform this grief into activism for positive social change. We have identified countless examples of this phenomenon. [4, 5]
One example is homemaker Candi Lightner, who was doubly shocked back in 1980, when her beloved daughter Cari was killed by a drunk driver, who was hardly punished by the court, even though this was not his first offence. Lightner launched “Mothers Against Drunk Driving” (MADD)–a powerful force which totally revolutionized U.S. legal policies on drunk driving. 
A more recent example is another mom, Diane Foley, who was powerless as she watched her dear son James Foley tortured and beheaded by ISIS in Iraq in 2014. Foley quickly channeled her anguish and outrage into positive activism by forming the James Foley Foundation, which is now highly effective in advising the State Department on how to prevent and help U.S. hostages overseas. 
In this case, Rodriguez’s defense lawyer noted that this dad was a social worker who would spend the rest of his life working to prevent this tragedy with others. The death of these two Bronx children has actually brought their parents much closer together, has alerted us all to this hidden problem, and will now save the lives of other children.
There was surely nothing good about the fatal nightmare that occurred on July 26. Yet the outcome is far more positive than we could hope–thanks to a combination of Dr. Diamond’s eye-opening behavioral research, the sage processes of the U.S. jury system, and the human spirit in homicide activists, who transform their own tragedy into positive social change for others. We now know about this problem, and what it takes to reduce it.
2. Dr. Diamond: http://psychology.usf.edu/faculty/diamond/