by Starks Shrink
On June 18, 2014, at the age of 22 months, Cooper Harris succumbed to hyperthermia inside a hot SUV in Atlanta, Georgia, still strapped into his car seat.
Georgia is hot in the summer, and typically starts in early May there. I did my residency at Emory University Hospital and lived very near to where this tragedy occurred, so when I read about the death, I wasn’t all that surprised. In Atlanta, I didn’t even leave my Walkman (yes, Walkman) in the car for the day because the heat was so oppressive and destructive that my REO SpeedWagon tapes were ruined the one time I forgot and left them in my vehicle. Given this, it’s not hard to understand how people could be saddened, but sympathetic, to a man who claims to have forgotten to drop his only son at daycare, leaving him strapped into the car seat that would become his deathbed.
Car deaths of small children are regrettably not uncommon in hot climes. Last year, there were at least 44 on record in the US. Even extremely responsible people can forget their children or underestimate the effect of heat in a closed vehicle. So, when a tragedy like this occurs, people are typically sympathetic to the negligent parent, if only because they know it could have happened to them. DUIs have historically engendered the same feelings in many people because a large percentage of people have driven at least once when intoxicated.
Justin Ross Harris, Cooper’s father, the purportedly forgetful parent who left the child in his hot SUV for nearly 7 hours, was charged not only with child cruelty, but with felony murder. The public was outraged to the point that an online petition, demanding that Cobb County drop the charges, garnered thousands of signatures in just a few days. County officials, however, countered with innuendos that damning evidence would soon be revealed and hinted at allegations that Harris had googled facts about car deaths due to hyperthermia prior to the incident.
Now the public was completely confused. A dead child and an apparently grieving family, but with strong hints from police that the death was intentional. As more information came to light, the evidence seemed increasingly damning to both parents, at least based on what the media chose to report. Social media was on fire with heated discussions and the online petition was soon withdrawn.
At Justin “Ross” Harris’s probable cause and bond hearing last week the prosecution and defense presented their versions of the events, and curiously, it seemed more like a trial than a mere hearing. The prosecution provided circumstantial as well as forensic evidence, while portraying Harris as a murderer who premeditated the death of his child.
The Prosecution’s Case:
Among the forensic evidence provided are security videos which depict Harris’s movements on that fateful day. They show him leaving the fast-food restaurant where he shared breakfast with his son, and then minutes later, arriving at his office about a mile from the restaurant. The visual evidence shows that Harris leaning over to the passenger seat to retrieve a laptop computer before exiting the vehicle. Tapes also show that Harris, contrary to his statements to investigators, returned to the vehicle on his lunch hour, opened the driver side door and deposited a package. Police claim that Cooper’s head would have been plainly visible above his rear-facing car seat at this juncture.
When Harris returned to his office after depositing the package, tapes depict him pausing and turning to watch a man walking near his SUV. At 4:16 PM, after leaving his office, Harris can be seen getting into his vehicle and immediately pulling out of the parking lot. After 6 minutes of travel, he pulled into a shopping mall parking lot, removed Cooper’s body from the car and laid him on the ground. A passerby assisted in attempts to render aid to the child. According to a detective on scene, the interior of the vehicle had a foul stench and the child was in full rigor mortis. The detective also stated that Harris was on his cell phone when police arrived, refused to terminate his conversation, and was so uncooperative with officers that he was cuffed and placed inside a police cruiser. It is noted that Harris was carrying $27,000 worth of life insurance on Cooper.
Those are indisputable facts in the case. Circumstantial evidence is what compelled prosecutors to charge Harris with felony murder and what caused the public to change their opinion about him. Prosecutors demonstrated that prior to Cooper’s death, Justin Harris had googled how long it takes for an animal to die in a hot car and had viewed an online video depicting the rising heat in the interior of a vehicle that was intended to warn the public about potential danger to pets. It was also revealed that he had been “sexting” with as many as 6 women he had made contact with through a dating website, one of whom is a minor, and had even been sexting from his SUV on the morning Cooper died.
The prosecution testified that Justin’s wife, Leanna, indicated that the couple was having marital and financial difficulties due to irresponsibility on Justin’s part. They pointed out that Harris had been passed over for a promotion at his current job, and had not been offered a position he had recently interviewed for at another company. The prosecution additionally brought out the alleged fact that Harris had been visiting a couple of Reddit sub forums, one that hosts death videos, and one dedicated to discussions about the pleasures of child-free life.
They also claim that Leanna was supposed to pick up Cooper from day care and that she went to the day care center after a brief phone conversation with Justin. When she discovered that he wasn’t there, her first reaction was one of horror, and she told others that Justin must have left Cooper in the car. When Harris left his office at 4:16, shortly after his phone conversation with Leanna, he claimed that he was going to a 5:00 movie with friends, despite the facts that he had previously told friends he would be late, and the theater was only a few miles from his office.
The prosecution (and much of the public) concludes from all of these pieces of evidence that Harris had researched how to kill his child and had planned and carried it out on June 18th in order to free himself of the burden of fatherhood, while solving his financial issues at the same time.
Case for the Defense:
There could be myriad explanations for the circumstantial evidence, and even the forensic evidence lends itself to various interpretation of Harris’ actions on that day. In my opinion, the prosecution has inadvertently made the defense’s case for them. If I were making the case for the defense, I would not attempt to dispute any of this evidence. What it clearly indicates to me is that Harris is a man with markedly poor impulse control, an unsettling self-absorption, and a disregard for consequences of his actions. He was described as being upset over his work situation, but given that the computer activities that police described occurred on his work computer, he can’t be described as the most conscientious of employees.
Perhaps, both he and his wife had researched car deaths because this wasn’t the first time Harris had inadvertently left Cooper in the car. In fact, despite Leanna’s admissions, comments at the day care center, and some rather bizarre statements at Cooper’s funeral, she has not been charged with anything. Perhaps Harris realized his marriage was in jeopardy and simply visited child-free forums to see what his life would be like if divorced. If I were his defense lawyer, I would give Harris a psychological evaluation with the expectation that a psychologist could testify to his habitual irresponsibility due to poor impulse control, evidence that could be introduced at trial. Although he perhaps has some form of personality disorder, that would not make him guilty of murder; at most, it would make him a poor husband and negligent father, which would tend to move his culpability, at worst, into the realm of some form of negligence-induced manslaughter.
I am not claiming to know what happened on that fateful day, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that this is a tragic accident caused by a habitually negligent man and we, the public, should not rush to judge this man until we’ve heard all the facts and arguments.
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