MIAMI — A judge ordered the acquittal Friday of a Nicaraguan immigrant charged with killing his 3-year-old daughter in a car crash because she had not been strapped in a car seat.
The sudden ruling ended a day-old criminal trial that had focused national attention on the issue of parental responsibility.
In ordering Ramiro de Jesus Rodriguez, 30, cleared of vehicular homicide charges even before the case reached the jury, Dade Circuit Judge Sidney B. Shapiro said prosecutors had failed to provide enough evidence that the defendant had driven his car recklessly.
Although other parents have been charged with manslaughter in connection with similar traffic fatalities involving children, the case against Rodriguez is believed to be the first to come to trial. All 50 states have laws requiring young children to ride in safety seats.
Rodriguez, who on Thursday wept quietly when prosecutors graphically described the injuries that led to his daughter's death, seemed relieved, maybe even stunned, as he heard the Spanish translation of the judge's decision. As he stood, friends and relatives wrapped him in their arms.
After thanking supporters in Miami's Nicaraguan community who had raised money for his defense, Rodriguez and his wife, Carmen Silva, left for a prayer service.
"I feel good, and I've come here to thank God I'm free," he said outside the church.
"We never thought there was enough evidence to convict, and in fact the charges should never have been brought," said defense attorney Reemberto Diaz. "They had to show he was driving with willful or wanton disregard for life, but he wasn't even driving carelessly.
"It was a tragic situation, and I'm glad it's over."
Rodriguez, a cook who came to the United States from Nicaragua in 1988, was making a left turn though an intersection two blocks from his home in Hialeah, Fla., last Aug. 3 when his car collided with a van traveling in the opposite direction. His daughter, Veronica, who was riding on her mother's lap in the front passenger seat, was thrown into the windshield. She died of massive head injuries four hours later.
To win a conviction, prosecutors had to show that Rodriquez had not only failed to place his daughter in a child restraint seat as required by Florida law, but that he operated the car "in a reckless manner likely to cause the death of another person."
But the judge ruled that prosecutors, despite dozens of photographs of the crash scene and testimony of police investigators, had failed to make a case. While Rodriguez may have committed traffic infractions, the judge wrote in his opinion, "this court concludes the defendant's actions do not rise to the level of 'reckless.' "
Prosecutor Sally Weintraub said the state's case suffered because it was unprecedented, and no Florida appellate court case law existed to bolster the contention that Rodriguez's actions were criminal. "We felt the jury should have had a chance to decide," she said.
Dade State Atty. Janet Reno said the decision to bring charges against Rodriguez last December, four months after the fatal crash, was a tough one with which some on her staff disagreed. "They felt we couldn't win," she said of dissenters.
But Reno said she listened to the pleadings of police and brought charges "because the child restraint law is so critical."
"I have received letters since the trial began, and calls, saying, 'Don't do it,' " said Reno. "Everybody, including me, feels terribly sorry for the parents. But there is a whole group of people out there who can't speak, and that's the children. The child restraint law is a marvelous means of saving lives, and it must be enforced."
Reno said she was surprised by Shapiro's decision. "I thought he'd let it go to the jury," she said. "But we'll live with it."
In Washington, Herta Feely, executive director of the national Safe Kids Campaign, said, "Although I don't think this man should be a scapegoat, it is important that the case happened. What the judge did was correct. But I think we should prosecute again. We have to do a better job of education and law enforcement."