A decision to criminally charge a North Carolina mother whose 1-year-old son drowned when they drove through Hurricane Florence floodwaters has caught the attention of criminal defense experts who were surprised by the move as well as a civil rights organization that is raising questions of racial bias.
"Everyone at the courthouse is talking about this," Charlotte lawyer Mark Jetton Jr. said Thursday. "The consensus is most lawyers are really shocked that she was charged."
Charges were filed Monday against Dazia Ideah Lee, 20, of Charlotte, for involuntary manslaughter and driving on a closed or unopened highway, the Union County Sheriff's Office said. The manslaughter charge, a felony, is the more serious of the two and can carry jail time.
Corine Mack, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg branch of the NAACP, said forcing Lee, who is black, to go through the criminal justice system for a death that no one is suggesting was intentional speaks to a larger problem facing people of color.
"We know that African-Americans are disproportionately charged and arrested in this country, and this is no different," Mack said. "This mother was already traumatized because of the loss of her child. Now she's being traumatized again. They're doing more than making an example of her — they don't see her life as something that matters."
Jetton said he met with Lee and her family on Wednesday, but she has not announced legal representation and did not return a request for comment.
While some details of what happened on the night of Sept. 16 remain murky, officials say Lee and her son, Kaiden, were overcome amid the chaotic Category 1 storm, which contributed to approximately 50 deaths across three states.
The Union County Sheriff's Office said it conducted an "exhaustive investigation," and Sheriff Eddie Cathey noted in a statement that after "taking all facts into consideration and applying the law, we feel that these charges are appropriate."
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Cathey would not discuss what exactly prompted the charges, but told NBC News that "charges are made a lot of times in accidents and other things in which a child's death has occurred. This is one of those cases," adding that the circumstances are "heartbreaking."
Jetton said the Lee family has several questions of their own that need answers.
"Every tragedy does not equal a crime," he added. "Just because someone is in your care and they die, doesn't mean a crime has been committed."
Police reports and interviews that Lee gave in the days after her son's death fill in some of what occurred: Lee said she was driving on Highway 218 in New Salem, a rural community about 35 miles east of Charlotte, and came upon a local creek that overflowed as Florence was raking the region. Authorities in Union County had placed barriers on portions of the highway that were impassable, officials said.
Lee was in the car with Kaiden, attempting to check on her great-grandmother, who lived another 20 miles away, after they lost communication.
At some point, her car was swept up in 10 feet of water and slammed a tree, Cathey said, according to NBC affiliate WCNC.
"When she was trying to get out of the water, she lost control of the child and then the rescue team rescued her, but the child was lost," the sheriff added.
Lee said she was able to get Kaiden out of his car seat, but lost his grip as they maneuvered through the waters. The following morning, the boy's body was found wedged between the car's bumper and the tree.
Lee's version of events and what officials say happen diverges here: Lee said she had seen other cars cross the road safely and she never knowingly drove around a barricade, which she believed other people may have moved. But Cathey in September was adamant there were barriers up: "She did drive around the barricades and proceeded on 218," he said, according to WCNC.
The District Attorney's office in Union County said it does not comment on cases in which potential charges are pending.
Robert DeCurtins, a criminal defense attorney in Charlotte, said authorities' logic in prosecuting Lee may hinge on that fact that she had a duty to ensure her son was being protected — which also meant she did not act recklessly.
"What will be interesting is, even though there was a death, the fact is she made a mistake," DeCurtins said. "She didn't believe that there would be this type of outcome, or I'm sure she would have never done it. On the other hand, I don't know if she understood the environment, and just how bad it was."
DeCurtins said there still remains a burden of proof for prosecutors in a case of involuntary manslaughter, which means a person acted criminally negligent when they unintentionally caused a death.
Jetton added that even if barriers were up as officials suggest, someone could have moved them or they could have swept away during the high winds and pouring rains — all factors that could play a part in whether Lee is culpable.
In a similar circumstance in South Carolina, two mental health patients being transported by Horry County Sheriff's deputies during Florence drowned when their van was overtaken by flooding. The deputies were fired last week, and state law enforcement is investigating possible charges against them. Officials said they believe the deputies drove around a barricade.
Lee is scheduled to appear in court on a criminal summons later this month.