published Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Authorities may have overstated case in Georgia toddler's heat death

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A Cobb County, Ga., sheriff's deputy talks to Justin Ross Harris, right, the father of a toddler who died after police say he was left in a hot car for about seven hours, as he appears for his bond hearing in Cobb County Magistrate Court on July 3 in Marietta, Ga.
A Cobb County, Ga., sheriff's deputy talks to Justin Ross Harris, right, the father of a toddler who died after police say he was left in a hot car for about seven hours, as he appears for his bond hearing in Cobb County Magistrate Court on July 3 in Marietta, Ga.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

ATLANTA — Two weeks ago, a Cobb County detective sat in a courtroom and presented a barrage of details that turned Justin Ross Harris into a pariah, a man widely seen as a monster who purposely left his 22-month-old son in a sweltering car to die.

But a review by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of some of the state’s evidence shows authorities may have overstated some of their case during the July 3 hearing. A close review by the AJC of video from a surveillance camera at the Home Depot office complex where Harris worked revealed discrepancies — some striking — with assertions made by Detective Phil Stoddard on the witness stand.

In addition, an exclusive interview with Harris’ brother, Michael Baygents, and a review of the transcript of the three-hour hearing reveal an emerging counter-narrative to the damning story about Harris that swayed public opinion. For instance, a thorough reading of the transcript suggests that prosecutors may have created a false impression by claiming that he searched the Internet for information about children and pets dying in hot cars.

Also, Harris’ brother told the AJC that he and Harris were in the process of booking a cruise for the two families and chose one based on the activities it offered for children.

On the other hand, the defense faces — at the very least — a mass of circumstantial evidence that, in its sheer variety and volume, presents a formidable challenge. Many points the Harris team has not publicly addressed yet at all.

Baygents, himself a veteran cop, said he would never have imagined that a father could forget his son in a car — until Cooper died on June 18.

”This is a strong topic — when a child dies inside a car,” he said. “I used to think, ‘Seriously, how could somebody do this?’ But knowing my brother and knowing how much he loved his son, I no longer think that.”

Baygents also criticized Cobb’s police investigation.

”It’s been frustrating to see it portrayed the way it’s been by the police department,” said Baygents, a sergeant and an instructor for the Law Enforcement Academy in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “I’m very angry with them. I think they rushed to judgment. I think Stoddard rushed to judgment. I think he made a terrible mistake.”

The detective’s testimony at the bond hearing that day has been likened to legal carpet bombing. It ranged from what Harris looked at on the Internet to his seeking sexual gratification in cyberspace to his finances.

The information was circumstantial and piecemeal, Harris’ attorney, H. Maddox Kilgore, argued in his closing statement. “The state wants to suggest all of these little, these little soundbites all thrown together somehow constitute some grand design,” he said. There is no direct evidence, he said, that Harris was aware that he was leaving Cooper in the car, only a cloud of inferences.

Nevertheless, the cumulative impact of the prosecution’s presentation persuaded the judge that the murder charge against Harris can be presented to a grand jury and that he should be held without bond. Police charged Harris with second degree child cruelty and felony murder, charges that do not require a finding of intent. A grand jury could indict him on those or other charges.

Kilgore would not comment for this story. Nor would Cobb police officials or the district attorney’s office.

”As you know, this case continues to be very active and fluid and the investigation is not complete,” Cobb police spokesman Officer M.W. Bowman said in an email.

The most sensational testimony on July 3 was that Harris sexted several women throughout the day as his son died outside. Kilgore objected repeatedly that the testimony was irrelevant and should not be allowed. He argued that, however distasteful his client’s activities, they said nothing about whether he knew Cooper was in the car.

”That probable cause hearing was nothing but a character assassination,” Baygents said. “It was slinging mud at Ross. It was to vilify him in the media and the public and turn the tide of public opinion away from him. The stuff that’s been insinuated just isn’t true. The facts are the facts. Let them stand for what they are.”

The security tapes

Of all the items presented against Harris that day, Stoddard’s description of the Home Depot security video bore most directly on Harris’ actions involving the car and Cooper. Whether the tape, which was not shown in court, supports the inferences drawn by the prosecution is arguable.

Stoddard, prompted by prosecutor Chuck Boring, said or strongly insinuated that Harris:

• Sat in his Hyundai Tucson for 30 seconds after parking it that morning, with his son just inches away, before heading into work;

• Returned to the parked SUV after lunch on the pretext of putting a package inside and had a “clear view” of the interior;

• Paused during his walk back to the office, apparently worried that a man who passed him in the parking lot would see his son inside the vehicle.

Later, in his closing arguments, Boring highlighted how long it supposedly took Harris to get out of the car that morning. “That morning, he waits 30 seconds in that car … 30 seconds with that child right beside him,” he said.

But the video shows that Harris was in the car for less than 15 seconds, during which he put the vehicle in park, turned off the engine and then gathered his smartphone, computer bag and drink before sliding out of the driver’s seat.

Regarding the lunchtime incident, Stoddard testified that when Harris opened the driver’s door and tossed in some light bulbs he had bought, “he’s all the way inside the frame … and as he’s reaching in, he kind of turns his head a little bit. He’s in there. He has a clear view.”

But the video shows that Harris’ eyes remain above the SUV’s roof line. Only his arm and shoulder reach inside the vehicle. On the video it shows it took three seconds for him to open the door, place the light bulbs inside and close the door.

Stoddard also insinuated that Harris became worried when another man walked past him in the parking lot and was headed toward the car.

”As that person approaches him, he stops,” Stoddard said of Harris. “He kind of stands there for a little bit as the guy walks past him. You can see that man walk up towards the car. He starts a little bit. Justin starts a little bit. He stops. The guy walks past the car, and then Justin gets on the phone and goes inside the Home Depot.”

Boring repeated that scenario in his summation to the judge, saying that Harris “stops when a person starts walking toward his car and waits until that person passes, and then re-enters” his office building.

The video does show Harris pass a man walking toward the car. In fact, the man walks through the open space next to Harris’ parked SUV, passing within three or four feet of the vehicle and walking the full length of it. If he had turned his head and glanced inside, he almost certainly would have seen Cooper.

The video shows that Harris does stop briefly, but his eyes are on his cellphone, which he pokes at with his free hand. He never looks back at the man who walks past his car.

Harris also walks past another man who is headed in the direction of the car. Once again, Harris does not look back at this man. In both instances, he appears oblivious to the passersby.

Troubling discrepancies

Atlanta criminal defense attorney Jack Martin said there are plenty of “suspicious circumstances” in the case that Harris will have to explain if he is to create a reasonable doubt as to his guilt.

But Martin, who is not part of the case and has not seen the security videos, said he found the apparent discrepancies in Stoddard’s testimony troubling.

”If Harris was sitting there for 30 seconds before getting out of the car, it makes you think he’s steeling his nerves about what he’s going to do, that he’s plotting what he’s going to do,” Martin said. “Either that, or it seems like that would be enough time to recall his kid’s in the back seat.”

Similarly, Martin said, the testimony about Harris stopping in the lot after lunch when the man passes by “gives the inference that he was worried that guy would notice something and that he was checking him out.”

If the video does not show that, Martin said, “what you have here is an exaggeration of some circumstances that can be totally consistent with innocence.”

Martin successfully represented Richard Jewell, the former security guard who was an initial suspect in the Centennial Park bombing during the 1996 Olympics. Jewell, who died seven years ago, was cleared of wrongdoing, and Eric Robert Rudolph pleaded guilty to the bombing in 2005.

A search for motives

Both in search warrant applications and at the hearing, police and prosecutors repeatedly said Harris “researched” or “searched for” information about child-free living and children or animals dying in hot cars. For many people, that left the impression that he was on a sustained quest to acquire that information.

But in his cross-examination, Kilgore argued that the information, in effect, presented itself to Harris. His only role, Kilgore said, was to click on a couple of items that appeared on websites millions of people visit every day for news and entertainment.

• Kilgore said that on a website Harris often used, the social sharing site Reddit, he clicked on a video made by a veterinarian who demonstrates how hot it gets in a closed car;

• He visited a Reddit topic page on which people discuss their choice not to have children, Stoddard said;

• Stoddard said Harris told police he watched a TV report on a parent who accidentally left a child in a car and now urges parents to turn around to check that they are not doing the same.

Baygents, who is Harris’s half-brother, scoffed at the conclusion prosecutors drew from those actions and Harris’ sexting activities — that Harris “wanted to live a child-free life.” Baygents pointed to different actions that, he said, show Harris was a devoted father who had plans for Cooper far into the future.

He said he and Harris were happily making arrangements to take their families on a cruise in October. The idea had percolated since Christmas, when Baygents said he wanted to take his wife and four children on a cruise.

Harris suggested the two families vacation together, Baygents said. “He hounded and hounded me about it. I finally gave him a green light about a month and a half ago.”

Harris started communicating with a travel agent about the cruise weeks before Cooper died, Baygents said. They settled on Carnival Cruise Lines after going online and finding a Carnival ship that had water slides for children.

”This wasn’t a husband-and-wife thing,” Baygents said. “It was family — kids and all.”

Harris wanted Baygents’ wife’s sister to come too, because Cooper had enjoyed playing with her son during a beach vacation over Memorial Day weekend.

Baygents also said the Harrises were saving up for a four-bedroom house because they wanted to have a second child before Cooper turned 3. And they were targeting their search to areas with good schools, he said.

”What parent does that unless they are planning for their kids?” Baygents asked.

Weeks earlier, in an interview with the AJC, Harris’ landlord said the couple was preparing to go house-hunting in search of good schools and a big back yard for Cooper to run around in.

Follow the money

During the probable cause hearing, Detective Stoddard testified that Ross and Leanna Harris were having financial difficulties and that Ross told police he had just charged up to $4,000 on a credit card to get airline miles.

Stoddard also testified the family had two insurance policies on Cooper totalling $27,000 — a $2,000 policy provided by Home Depot and another $25,000 policy they took out as part of Harris’ benefits package in November 2012, shortly after Cooper’s birth.

Taken together, Stoddard’s testimony could leave the impression that Harris had a financial incentive to see Cooper dead. In an earlier search warrant application, police said that Harris had instructed family members from jail on how to file for the money.

Baygents said Harris told him about the insurance policies while the two of them were discussing burial arrangements for Cooper. He said Harris told him to use the money for the boy’s funeral.

Baygents also said Harris gave him control of the Harrises’ accounts when he came to Marietta after Cooper’s death, so he is fully acquainted with the couple’s finances. The family had $6,000 in savings, paid their bills on time and had excellent credit, Baygents said.

”To say they were in financial trouble is just crazy,” he said.

Under questioning by Kilgore, Stoddard acknowledged the police had uncovered no evidence that Harris was in financial trouble. That allegation was based, he said, on Leanna Harris’ answer to a police question: She suggested that, like most people, the couple sometimes felt financially stressed.

”To think that he killed Cooper for $27,000 is a joke,” Baygents said.

Damning details

The defense team still faces many pieces of circumstantial evidence that tend to weigh against Harris, some of which they have yet to answer. There is his reported comment to his wife at the police station that he “dreaded” how Cooper would look. There is what Stoddard insisted was an actual Internet search for information on living in prison. There is testimony that the car stank “like death,” something Harris either failed to notice or ignored as he drove for several minutes with the windows up on the afternoon of June 18 with the boy’s body in the back seat.

On other points, Kilgore, during the hearing, and Baygents, in interviews with the AJC, offered interpretations quite different from the inferences drawn by police.

On the stand, Stoddard made much of how little time elapsed between Harris’ strapping Cooper into his car seat after they got breakfast at Chick-fil-A and his reaching the intersection where he should have turned to take the boy to day care. That drive takes no more than 30 or 40 seconds, the detective testified.

But in his cross-examination, Kilgore suggested that Harris’ usual routine was to drop the boy off at day care, drive to the restaurant and then head straight to work. So bringing Cooper to Chick-fil-A was a departure from an established pattern, Kilgore implied.

Experts say a break in routine is a common reason parents forget that a child is in the car.

Baygents said that reinforces his certainty that his brother made a terrible mistake, not a calculated choice. “I know Ross. Cooper was his buddy. To see him portrayed as a terrible parent is just not right,” he said.

Baygents also addressed Stoddard’s testimony about what happened when Leanna and Ross were put together in the same room after his arrest. Police, listening in on the conversation, heard Leanna ask her husband, “Did you say too much?”

But this was not a marital conspiracy, Baygents said. “It was more along the line of, ‘What’s going on here? Are we in trouble or something?’ They were in a total state of shock. Their child was dead.”

Police have also said Leanna showed little emotion after learning Cooper was dead. They have recounted a phone call to her mother, in which the mother is heard to ask why Leanna is not more emotional.

Baygents said that there are times when Leanna talks calmly and coherently about what happened. “But there have also been times when she’s on the floor in a fetal position calling out to God.”

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