Sexting and the Hot Car Death

Back in the summer of 2014, Atlanta made headlines when father Justin Ross Harris forgot to drop his 1-year-old son Cooper off at daycare and instead drove to work, leaving Cooper in a hot car where he quickly died. Children dying in hot cars is a chronic problem here in America: it is apparently surprisingly easy for chronically sleep-deprived parents to have their daily routine interrupted or changed and then just forget the kid is back there. I was lucky, because my kid never sleeps, so there was always noise to remind me she was there.

Harris was pilloried in the media because he had an ongoing sexting relationship with several women, some of whom were underage: the prosecution wants jurors to believe that Harris murdered Cooper because he didn’t want the burden of family. And to be fair, he did say to several of his… textees, that he wished he weren’t a family man.

Today, the court ruled that it wouldn’t “sever”, or separate, his trial for sexting with minors, which on the surface is a blow for Harris. The prosecution can now argue that a) he’s a scumbag and deserves conviction, and b) that his comments in the texts indicate that Cooper’s death was not a tragic accident but a deliberate murder made to look like one.

But I’m not so sure they’ll succeed. This is Georgia, and we can never underestimate the ability of juries to convict based on irrelevant but lurid details; but still, while Harris is indeed kind of scummy, the sexts really are a separate issue. How do you prove murder in a case like this?

The article makes clear that a few of the original details that made it seem as if Harris had been searching on his computer for things that could potentially lead to Cooper’s death turned out to be false or misleading. Wanting to see the genitalia of high-school girls is super cheesy and technically a crime (well, asking to see them is a crime) but none of it has anything to do with Cooper’s death. The link between action and intent is broken, or doesn’t exist. Besides, Harris seemed to be doing a bang-up job of being a lumpy, marginally-attractive thirtysomething father who could still manage to get teenage girls to send him sexts and pictures: why bother murdering Cooper, in this case?

Here’s my favorite part:

One minor, identified only as “CD,” told Stoddard that “Ross loved Cooper a lot” and he would never do anything to hurt the child, the detective said, adding that “CD” also told him that though he admitted cheating on his wife, Leanna, he loved her and would never leave her. She further said that Harris sent her images of him and Cooper — whom he called “smart” and “handsome” — vacationing at a beach, while she shared photos from her prom, Stoddard said.

At one point in their relationship, Harris discouraged her from dropping out of a technical school, the detective said. Asked why she sent him photos, she replied, “Because I really liked him,” she said, according to Stoddard.

The two conversed while Cooper was dying in the car, Stoddard said, adding that the communications were sexual in nature.

Yes, but the conversation’s existence doesn’t indicate intent. Also, Stoddard’s quote makes Harris appear to be a better father than the prosecution is arguing: he’s being a proper role model to her (aside from the pictures), and wants her to do the right thing.

Cooper’s death is a tragedy, but accusing him of murder is really a reach. Negligent homicide? Sure. Manslaughter? Could work: his obvious criminal negligence led to his son’s death. But murder? To me, it’s a bridge too far.


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