Babies left in hot cars: Accident or crime?

Some parents are never prosecuted. Antonio Balta got 20 years.


Balta opened the door and saw Veronika hunched over in her seat. He called her name, but she didn't move. As he lifted her out of the car, he could feel her hot skin.

"Veronika!" he said again, moving her gently.

Glenn Mitsui/Getty Images
Antonio Balta has spent the past five years at the Sumter Correctional Institution in Bushnell, Florida. When he gets out, he'll likely be deported.
Antonio Balta has spent the past five years at the Sumter Correctional Institution in Bushnell, Florida. When he gets out, he'll likely be deported.

The baby's lips were bluish-purple. Her eyes rolled back in her head. A milky foam dropped from her mouth.

"Veronika! Veronika!"

Though he'd never learned the technique, he attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. No response. He called Michelle, panicked.

"The baby isn't waking up," he said.

"What do you mean the baby isn't waking up?" he remembers her saying.

He started the car. With Veronika on his lap, he drove toward the track ambulance. Michelle met him there. When EMTs tried cooling the baby with ice and a damp cloth, she moved her arms a bit. Balta remembers someone saying she'd be OK — she just needed to go to the hospital immediately.

As Balta stepped up into the ambulance to ride with his baby, a police officer grabbed his arm. He should stay. They had some questions.

"They were already treating me like I did this on purpose," Balta says.

Multiple police officers asked him to explain what happened. At first, he said he thought maybe she had choked on her milk. Soon, though, he admitted he'd left the baby in the car — for "not long," he told police.

He was still in the back of an investigator's car more than an hour later when a nurse at the scene informed him that Veronika had died on the way to the hospital. He remembers staring out the window, feeling like the car was closing in around him.

At the police station, he saw Michelle. From across a small waiting room, she sobbed and asked him over and over how this could happen. He didn't have any answers.

They were taken to separate rooms. Two more officers interviewed Balta; then he was placed under arrest.

At his sentencing a year later, the courtroom was filled with reporters, photographers, a few former co-workers, and Michelle's family. Wearing orange scrubs two sizes too big, Balta looked like a confused little boy. His hands were folded in front of him. His eyes were distant. He spoke a little English, but that day, the words all seemed new and strange. Everyone was talking so fast.

Just two months earlier, the dentist in Boca had pleaded guilty and received probation, so Ken Padowitz, Balta's attorney, hoped for a similar resolution. He figured that at worst, Balta might serve a year or two and then be deported. That's why Balta pleaded guilty to aggravated manslaughter of a child and threw himself at the mercy of Circuit Judge Ilona Holmes.

At the sentencing, Balta did not cower or cry. He did not shake, scream, or plead with someone to kill him. He just stared, catatonic, as the lawyers around him argued over what should become of him.

A psychologist testified that Balta has an IQ of 74 and is emotionally disconnected. Padowitz called him "borderline retarded."

But prosecutor Howard Scheinberg reminded the court that Balta was betting while his daughter died alone. "This baby died trapped and tied down in a human sauna," he said. "In the stifling, 125-degree car, the baby's body temperature reached 107 degrees."

When it was time for Balta to speak to the court, his voice didn't crack. He shed no tears. In slow, heavily accented English, he said, "I did a mistake. I suffer her loss every waking hour of each day. She was my life."

Judge Holmes — who did not respond to requests for comment for this article — apparently wasn't moved. She told him his actions were "totally callous" and "heinous." Balta didn't recognize most of the words the judge was using, but he understood what came next: "Twenty years."


Looking back, Balta's attorney feels like he let him down. Padowitz says he thinks of the case often. His own children can be heard playing in the background as he speaks by telephone.

"I felt sorry for the child who died here," he says, "but I also felt enormous sympathy for Mr. Balta himself. He received much too harsh a sentence. It's a tragic situation in every way, but his sentence was disproportionate to the specific facts of this case. From the first the time I met with my client, it was clear to me he was suffering from a mental deficit. That's a significant fact in this case and wasn't accounted for. The prosecution focused on the facts that would stir the emotions of anyone hearing them."

He believes the 20-year sentence was a reaction to public outrage at the time. "He didn't wake up that morning intending to commit a crime or hurt his child," Padowitz says. "There are people who wake up in the morning knowing they're going to go commit a criminal act, knowing they're going to shoot somebody, and they don't get as long as he got."

The attorney who prosecuted the case, Scheinberg, had young children at the time of the sentencing. "I just couldn't imagine what [Balta] was thinking," Scheinberg says. "He had a stroller in the trunk. He knew the effects of the heat. She was only 9 months old. She was small. He could have carried her."

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