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Lawyer Asks Mercy for Father Whose Baby Died in Hot Van

September 14, 2004|Mai Tran and David Haldane | Times Staff Writers

The lawyer for a man whose infant daughter died after he left her inside a minivan questioned Monday why his client was arrested when a UC Irvine professor whose baby died in an overheated car last year was not.

In a three-page letter to Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas, Encino attorney Robert Rentzer asked the prosecutor not to file charges and to "make a compassionate decision" regarding John Michael Dunton, a paralegal who was described by friends as a doting father.

Dunton, 42, of Anaheim, was jailed in Santa Ana early Friday, hours after he had left his 5-month-old daughter buckled in her child safety seat. The girl later died from heatstroke. He told police he had forgotten to take Jasmine to a baby-sitter's home before going to work.

Rentzer said Dunton should not face charges because he forgot his child in the car under circumstances similar to those of Mark Warschauer, the UCI professor who accidentally left his 10-month-old son in a car at the school Aug. 8, 2003. It was only later, following a lunch break, that the professor learned his child was dead.

Warschauer was not arrested because he was not a flight risk, had no prior arrests, was not a danger to the community and was fully cooperative, Irvine Police Lt. Mike Hammel said.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Scott Simmons said he expected to decide within a week whether charges should be filed. To prosecute these types of cases, he said, "there has got to be criminal negligence. It has to be more than just inattention -- if a person truly, truly forgets, then it's not criminal negligence."

Dunton posted $100,000 bail and was released Friday.

Warschauer visited Dunton and his wife, Jennie -- a registered nurse at Fullerton's St. Jude Medical Center for 14 years -- for more than an hour Saturday night to offer condolences, counseling and referrals to support groups, Rentzer said.

Rentzer said Dunton knew the girl was in the back seat, but had a lapse of memory because she was asleep and not banging her toys as usual. When he drove past the baby-sitter's home, Rentzer said, "John was likely already thinking he had dropped Jasmine off."

"John is a good man. He's a loving father," Rentzer said. "Knowing John as I do, I understand it. It's a lack of concentration and it just happened, but there was nothing sinister."

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