Online activity and electronic devices may hold key as to intent.
The case against Justin Ross Harris, the Georgia dad who stands accused of leaving his 22-month old son to die in a hot car, has captured the attention of the media and the public since more details were revealed in a probable cause hearing late last week.
New documents released on Monday provide additional insight into where the investigation may be focused.
From USA Today:
A new series of search warrants in the case of a 22-month-old Georgia boy who died while in a hot car last month show a focus on the electronic trail leading up to his death.
The warrants made public by the Magistrate Court of Cobb County on Monday morning show Cobb County Police investigators looking into electronic devices found inside Justin Ross Harris’ 2011 Hyundai Tuscan. A thumb drive, an external hard drive, a SD card, and a DVD-R were all taken into police custody.
According to the warrants, all of the items will be searched for “information pertaining to finances, credit card debt, business information, life insurance, emails/communication regarding child, wife, and family issues, photos/videos of the child to show development, information about car seat searches, searches regarding car deaths, communications with other people on the days leading up to and the incident date, information on life insurance policies.”
What initially seemed to be a case in which many could conceivably believe it was a tragic accident took a different turn last week and has expanded into a digital expedition of online searches, videos and tawdry text messages.
It was during the probable cause hearing last Thursday that the public learned 33-year old Ross Harris was allegedly sexting with other women – including one who was underage at the time, as his son sat in a sweltering hot car, according to the testimony of Cobb County, Georgia, police Detective Phil Stoddard.
Authorities had also released details about Harris’ other alleged activity online, which included a search for Georgia laws on the age of consent and a search for “how to survive prison,” as the LA Times reported. Police also say Harris twice watched a public service announcement video about hot car deaths, and that both Harris and his wife had researched hot car deaths online.
Additionally, Harris is said to have read several articles on the popular internet forum reddit, in a subreddit called “childfree.” That particular subreddit, by the way, has since been set to private.
Intent is Key
Ross Harris’ lawyer, Maddox Kilgore, maintained that his client did not intentionally leave his child in the car, and offered an explanation for the searches on hot car deaths, saying it was a fear of both Harris and his wife. He also argued that the sexting allegations – what he repeatedly called “fantasy texting” – were not relevant, while the Assistant District Attorney in the case told the judge during the probable cause hearing that the prosecution intended to show that Harris “wanted to lead a child-free life.”
From the LA Times:
Harris’ attorney argued that his client had simply gotten distracted, and that prosecutors had only brought up the sexting to “publicly shame” Harris, who is married. Two of Harris’ friends and his brother testified that he seemed to be a loving father, but none of them said they had known about Harris’ sexual dalliances.
“We plan to show he wanted to lead a child-free life,” Assistant District Attorney Chuck Boring told the judge in the case.
“He’s got this whole second life he’s living with alternate personalities and alternate personas” with his sexual activities online, Boring said.
While some of these recently revealed details, specifically the revelations of his alleged sexting activities, may say something about the character of Harris, a married man, one key issue in upcoming weeks will be whether or not any of it is evidence that supports the accusations against him.
Additional details presented thus far in the case were focused on what Harris did that day, the timing of events and his behavior.
Father’s Behavior That Day Reconstructed
According to authorities, Harris arrived at his workplace at the Home Depot the morning of June 18th, where he left his son Cooper in the car, still strapped in his car seat. Harris maintains that he forgot to drop his son off at day care that morning and was unaware his son was still in the car when he arrived at work.
Police indicated that only minutes prior to Harris arriving at work, he was seen on surveillance video with his son at a nearby Chick-fil-A, where his son was described as “wide awake and happy.” Harris then strapped his son into the car seat at 9:19am and surveillance video shows his parked SUV at his workplace only 6 minutes later. Harris is said to have backed his car into the parking spot.
Later in the day, Harris got a ride to lunch with friends and stopped to purchase light bulbs while they were out. According to surveillance footage, Harris was seen returning to his own vehicle mid-day, at which point he opened the driver’s side door and tossed the light bulbs into the vehicle. Police said Harris then left his vehicle and began to walk back toward his workplace building, but could be seen hesitating as another man walked by the vehicle.
Police also indicated that Harris had received an email from his son’s day care during the day.
And when he left his office for the day and headed out to meet friends for a 5pm movie, investigators said Harris didn’t immediately realize his son’s body was in the vehicle. This raised questions for authorities, as they indicated there was a foul smell of death when they examined the vehicle, according to the LA Times.
Investigators and the Assistant District Attorney questioned how Harris could have missed his son in the vehicle at each of these opportunities.
Insurance Policies and Police Interviews
There are other details that investigators have been examining as well, including two life insurance policies on Cooper totaling $27,000, and the behavior of both Ross Harris and his wife during the incident and in police interviews.
[Detective] Stoddard also testified about how Leanna Harris acted when she arrived at a day care enter to pick the boy up and employees there told her Cooper had never been dropped off.
“Ross must have left him in the car,” she replied, according to the detective. Witnesses said they tried to tell her many other things could have happened, but Leanna Harris insisted that Ross Harris must have left the boy in the car, Stoddard said.
He also testified that when Ross and Leanna Harris were in an interview room, Ross Harris told his wife that Cooper looked “peaceful” and that his eyes were closed when he was removed from the vehicle. He told his wife, “I dreaded how he would look,” Stoddard said, noting how Harris had used the past tense.
The detective added that the boy’s eyes and mouth were not closed when he was taken out of the SUV.
At another point in the interview room, Stoddard said, Leanna Harris asked her husband about what he had said to police.
“She asked him — she had him sit down, and he starts going through this. And she looks at him, and she’s like, ‘Well, did you say too much?’ ” the detective testified.
Despite how prosecutors have portrayed Harris, his defense attorney maintains that nothing about his client’s actions that day in the death of his son were intentional. He insisted that Harris forgot Cooper was in the car, and described the result of that forgetfulness as an accident with results that were “absolutely catastrophic.” Further, the defense attorney told the judge during the probable cause hearing, “We have heard a lot of suggestions and speculations and maybe even coincidences, but you certainly haven’t heard any evidence that this was intentional, certainly not what was charged in the warrant as well.” [source, partial transcript from CNN]
Nonetheless, the judge ultimately found probable cause to move forward to a grand jury with the case, and he denied bail for Harris.
“For him to enter the car … when the child had been dead and rigor mortis had set in, and the testimony is the stench in the car was overwhelming at that point in time, that he — in spite of that — got in the car and drove it for some distance before he took any action to check on the welfare of his child, I find there is probable cause for the two charges contained in the warrant,” [Cobb County Chief Magistrate] Cox told a packed courtroom.
Digital Evidence Could Be Key
It’s hard to say how all this will play out and if it’s all strong enough to hold up as evidence in court as the case moves forward. And as some legal analysts have noted, there are some legal complexities in this case.
Meanwhile, this is shaping up to be one of those cases that prompts quite a bit of chatter in the court of public opinion.
Additional portion of transcript from the probable cause hearing available here.
Video report below from CNN.
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