WHAT HAPPENED? (1)
As summer heats up, literally, one thing people need to worry about more than in the cooler months is hot car death. Hot car death is unthinkably tragic and heartbreaking, and debates over whether it is the product of human absentmindedness or parental neglect or malice spark whenever a child dies in this way. So is it an accident? Or murder? In this case, it was ruled the latter.
On June 18, 2014, a 22-month-old toddler died of hyperthermia when his father left him in the car seat of his SUV after failing to drop him off at day care. His father, Justin Ross Harris, maintained the death was a tragic accident, but despite this, he was charged with and convicted of murder.
He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
THE INCIDENT & INVESTIGATION (1)
Justin Ross Harris, who goes by Ross, was born in 1980. After a brief stint as a police dispatcher, he received his bachelor's degree in commerce and business administration, and moved from Alabama to Georgia to work as a web developer for Home Depot.
On the morning of June 18, 2014, Harris took his toddler, Cooper, to Chick-fil-A for breakfast, about 1 mile away from his office, before dropping him off at day care. But for reasons that are still debated to this day, Harris failed to drop his son off at day care. He strapped the child into the rear facing car seat and instead of driving to drop him off, he drove to his office, parked, and went inside for work, leaving Cooper inside the car in the middle of June.
At around 12:30 PM, Harris had lunch with 2 friends nearby, and then went to a Home Depot to purchase some light bulbs. When he returned to his car, he opened the driver's side door to put the bulbs in the car, but, according to him, did not realize his baby was still there.
After Cooper had been in the hot, June car for 7 hours, the work day was over and Harris went to his car to drive home. Sometime after he got in the car, at 4:16 PM, he stopped at a nearby shopping center to call for help when he realized his son was dead in his back seat.
Harris told the police that he forgot to drop his son off at day care, and drove straight to work instead, completely forgetting that Cooper was still in the backseat. Temperatures in Atlanta reached 80 degrees that day.
While investigating Cooper's death, there was a focus on Harris' extramarital affairs. In fact, on the day his son was outside, dying in his car, he was texting sexually explicit messages and photos to at least 6 different women, some under the age of consent (he was in his early 30's.) Therefore, the police believed that he had purposely killed his son so that he would have an excuse to leave his wife and pursue other relationships.
Police initially viewed his wife, Leanna, as a suspect, but she was ultimately ruled out. Though she filed for divorce in 2016 and retained her maiden name, she never stopped defending her ex-husband's innocence, refusing to believe that he would have killed their beloved son intentionally.
THE TRIAL (1)
After nearly 3 weeks of jury selection, the Judge granted the defense's request to locate the trial outside of where the child died, as it was becoming very difficult to find a fair jury in the area. The trial was moved to Glynn County.
Evidence presented at the trial included the video of Harris returning to his car in the middle of the day to put the lightbulbs inside. Though they acknowledged that it didn't really look like he looked around the car, they alleged that they would have been able to smell the stench of a dead body baking in the summer heat. He also would have noticed it immediately upon entering the car at the end of the day. However, witnesses on the scene said they did not notice a smell, either.
The prosecution also alleged that Harris had done some research on hot car death before the incident. Leanna testified on Harris' behalf at the trial. She claimed that her husband had destroyed her life with his sexual affairs, but she did not believe that he would have killed their child on purpose.
Ultimately, the trial lasted for 1 month and the jury deliberated for 4 days. The prosecution's argument was that Harris, who was clearly interested in a life filled with other women who were not his wife, wanted a life free from his familial responsibilities and thus, killed his son so he could pursue other women. The defense argued that Ross Harris was responsible for his son's death, but by negligence and forgetting he was there, not an intentional, malicious murder of a toddler.
Ultimately, the jury sided with the prosecution. He was found guilty of malice murder and felony murder, and also found guilty of charges related to the nude photos he was exchanging with a teenaged girl. He was found guilt on November 14, 2016, and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
The ruling was very controversial. In the immediate aftermath of Cooper's death, a Change.org petition circulated, encouraging authorities to drop the charges before he had been convicted. People attested to his being a loving father in the petition, but it was taken down shortly after being published.
Leanna Harris, now Taylor, has continued to defend her ex-husband and believes that her son's death. Harris' legal team filed an appeal in January of 2017, arguing that it was impossible for him to receive a fair trial with all of the prejudicial testimony re: his affairs and self-proclaimed sex addiction, though there is no news on the status of his appeal.
SO, IS IT MURDER?
The real answer? Sometimes. The ruling depends on the circumstances surrounding the case, sure, but it also is a little bit random. From case to case, jury to jury, the punishments for parents responsible for hot car death are not made equal. In about 40% of the cases, no files are charged. And in 60% of the cases, cases identical to the 40% with no charges, the cases are aggressively pursued.
Nothing about hot car death is equal, really, besides the victims: children. But the parents? It isn't primarily white men. It isn't primarily lower-class women. It isn't primarily someone with a stressful job, or primarily someone who never finished high school. You might think to forget your baby, to accidentally kill your beloved, sweet child, you must be a terrible parent, right? But that doesn't appear to be the case.
In an article I have read many times, the author explains that hot car death can happen to anyone.
What kind of person forgets a baby? The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the frantically organized, to the college-educated and to the margianally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college processor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.
It can happen to anyone. I've seen many posts on Facebook where, after one of these tragic incidents happens and makes the news, people judging the parents, believing it could never happen to them. It is psychology, really. We believe that when bad things happen to others, it is intentional. Believing that allows us not to worry about it happening to us, because certainly, we would never do such a thing. That happened to them, but they were bad parents. And since I'm a good parent, it can't happen to me.
But it can. And believing otherwise can have dangerous effects. People have suggested leaving a phone, a work bag or even a shoe with your child's carseat because those are things you would quickly realize you are missing. And it is blown off, believing that to admit it could happen to anyone is an admission that they are a neglectful parent. "This is like saying you value your phone more than your kid!" they cry, even though it isn't about value. It is about routine. And if your phone, or laptop, or shoe are part of your routine, your brain might alert you to its absence before alerting you that you forgot to drop off your baby. No one is saying it means you value your material items more. And maybe you think it is a complete waste of time to leave an item with your baby, because you could never do that to your baby, right? But nobody who left their child in the sweltering heat all day thought they'd ever do it, either.
It is something that happens to your child, of course, but thinking about it being something that happens to you might help break the stigma around it. In Chattanooga, a business executive's motion-detector car alarm went off 3 times, but he didn't realize anyone tampering with his car, so he deactivated the alarm. 3 times. His child was dying inside. In his brain, he didn't miss a step in his routine, and thus, 3 different alarms didn't set off any bells for him.
In 2008, a large, 300lb man named Miles Harrison was reduced to nothing when he sat as a defendant in his trial for manslaughter after he had accidentally left his son in the car during the sweltering July heat. When he arrived at the hospital, he was described as "virtually catatonic" and told the nurse that he did not want sedation and instead, wanted to die. He was charged.
Just 5 days before, Portsmouth, Virginia electrician named Andrew Culpepper picked up his son from his parents house, drove home, and went inside, falling asleep, forgetting his son was in the car. He died in the driveway outside of the house. He was not charged with a crime.
In the end, Miles Harrison was found not guilty, but he went through a grueling trial whereas in Culpepper's case, right off the bat, he was not seen as committing a crime.
Neither of those men are sitting in jail for the deaths of their children, instead living freely with the memories of what they did. Harrison's wife remembers getting the call for his husband, describing it as only "unintelligible screaming". One man, when the police arrived after he realized his kid was in the back seat, dead, charged at the police officer for his gun, hoping to end his life right there. The prison these people have put themselves in is worse than any physical cage could be.
But Justin Ross Harris sits behind bars. It can happen to anyone, right? White or black? Rich or poor? Scatterbrained or organized? Does that also mean it could happen to a faithful husband or a cheater? Does that mean it could happen to a normal man or a sex addicted pedophile? If it can happen to anyone, do the extenuating circumstances surrounding Harris' case make him a murderer trying to cut his family ties, or does it just add another description to the list of people this can happen to?
I don't know. It was up for a jury to decide, and they decided the former. He was not a cheater and predator to underaged women who just so happened to add his name to the list of people who tragically forgot their kids were in the car, they ruled, and thus, for a crime some people are not even charged for, he was given life without parole.
Hot car death is a divisive topic. I will be honest, the first few times I heard of it, I was absolutely baffled that anyone could forget an entire child in the car, or that anyone could defend doing such a thing. But I understand, now. It (most of the time) is not a willful act of malice, a criminal act, but a lapse in routine that leads your brain to forget crucial information.
You don't have to love the parents this has happened to. You don't have to voice your support or sign petitions. But you should at least admit that it could happen to you. It is preventable only if you believe it is possible.
Reference #2 is an amazing article that I have read many times. I used information from it throughout, but I would absolutely recommend giving the entire article a read.