A local psychologist and criminal profiler agree police will be looking at Justin Ross Harris’ habits, his testimonies and the evidence he left to determine who Harris was before he was arrested June 18.
“The way the investigators are probably looking at that is what is normal, what is reasonable for him. What does normal look like? What is reasonable behavior for him?” said Stan Crowder, an assistant professor of criminal justice at Kennesaw State University.
Crowder examined the evidence police presented in Harris’ bond hearing July 3 to determine, much like police will, what Harris’ intentions were the day of the crime.
Harris, 33, of Marietta, is charged with murder and child cruelty. He was denied bond and has been in the Cobb County jail since June 18.
“Evidence can’t lie, it can’t be persuaded. It can be misinterpreted, but it can’t be changed,” Crowder said.
Crowder and Marietta psychologist Dr. Gary Dudley analyzed details of the case brought out by police in Harris’ hearing to determine what might have been normal for Harris.
Forgetfulness or intention?
Dudley said, as a psychiatrist, he often sees parents forget their children, so this case, although it has been highly publicized, is not unusual.
Dudley said it’s “plausible” Harris could have left his son in the car by accident because he was distracted and forgot to take him to day care that morning on the drive to work.
“The idea of going through a routine and missing a piece of it — it happens every day,” said Dudley, who founded Atlanta Area Psychological Associates, a group of counselors, psychologists and social workers who have offices in Marietta, Acworth, Roswell and Cumming.
Although it might have been a normal day for Harris, Dudley said, police might look for what caused Harris to become distracted enough to forget someone in the back seat of his car.
Dudley said it doesn’t take a dramatic event to be thrown off schedule. It could be something as simple as a phone call, he said.
“Anything in the routine can be overlooked by momentary distraction or preoccupation,” Dudley said.
Tara Abney, a stay-at-home mom of a 4-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl from Smyrna, said she could see how Harris could have forgotten to drop his child off at day care that morning.
“I could see how that could happen. I think that could be any parent,” Abney said as her children ran through Glover Park. “I have always worried about that — forgetting and leaving them in the car.”
Dudley said he sees lapses in memory very often and considers them normal. What wasn’t normal about Harris’ act of forgetfulness, he said, was Harris apparently didn’t remember his child for seven hours.
“What made it unusual is the length of time that he was left in the car,” Dudley said.
Cooper Harris was left in the car strapped into a child seat that was too small for him, said Detective Phil Stoddard at the hearing. The straps of the child seat were also set to the tightest level.
“The intention was for the child not to come out of (the car seat), but that could be for a good reason or for a not good reason,” Crowder said.
Video on hyperthermia
It is unclear if Harris had a habit of watching videos about heat-related deaths before his son died, but police said he last watched a video on the subject five days before leaving his son in the car.
Harris had an extensive history on the Internet, which Chuck Boring, the assistant district attorney, described as his second personality, so police could consider his interest in the video as normal, Crowder said.
Stoddard said at Harris’ hearing he had watched a video of a veterinarian sitting in a car for hours in the sun to show viewers what it would be like to suffer hyperthermia, which was the cause of death for Cooper Harris.
Crowder said Harris could have chosen to watch the video either to learn or to be entertained. But this video would most likely have been used for education, Crowder said.
“You wouldn’t be watching a video like that for entertainment. You would be watching it for learning,” Crowder said. “But, you can learn because you want to learn about preventative measures.”
Stoddard said in court Harris had told him that heat-related death “was a fear of his.”
What made Harris want to watch the video, Crowder said, is what will decide if he intentionally left his child in his car.
“What was the motive for the learning (from the video) — that’s still being developed,” Crowder said.
Stoddard provided evidence at the hearing Harris had used chat rooms and dating websites to send sexually-explicit photographs to six different women the day his child sat dying in the heat in his car.
Dudley said Harris’ habit of sexting was normal for him, according to police, but it could have been a source of distraction that contributed to forgetting his son.
“It’s an additional source of distraction that not everybody allows into their life,” Dudley said.
Crowder said Harris’ sexting habit was unsightly, but it wasn’t illegal.
“The sexting in and of itself is a modern-day thing that people used to do in the 1960s with pictures,” Crowder said. “It’s just a different medium now. When it becomes criminal is when there’s a juvenile involved.”
Stoddard testified in court that there was a juvenile involved with Harris.
Dudley said he sees patients all the time with sexual addictions that he calls obsessions, which is what he said Harris was suffering from. So, Harris’ sexting isn’t unusual either.
“That behavior is so prevalent right now I think you are at risk if you try to ascribe a specific meaning to it,” Dudley said.
Harris’ lawyer, Maddox Kilgore, objected six times to Assistant District Attorney Chuck Boring’s accusations, but the judge denied his objections. Kilgore said he thought the details of Harris’ personal life were unrelated to his intentions the day he left his son in the car.
“That has nothing to do with anything,” Kilgore said in court.
Overall, Crowder said there were many indications Harris was using “deceptive behavior,” such as when he didn’t tell the police that he was deaf in his left ear. Kilgore told Stoddard about his client’s hearing loss for the first time at the court appearance.
“You use deceptive behavior to reinforce what you want people to believe usually in a law — you don’t use deceptive behavior for the truth,” Crowder said.
But, Crowder added, it’s not unusual in cases of child deaths that the police thoroughly investigate family members.
“As an outsider looking in it, certainly appears Cobb PD and DA’s office are being very thorough and being very meticulous in their approach to this thing,” Crowder said.
Sergeant Dana Pierce, a spokesman for Cobb police had no new updates on their investigation, and he said police do not know when they will be done with the investigation.
After police finish gathering evidence, they will give all the information they have about the case to the district attorney’s office, said Kim Isaza, a spokeswoman for the district attorney.
Then, the district attorney will choose whether to bring the case to a grand jury.
If the DA thinks there is enough evidence to warrant a trial, Isaza said he will order a grand jury to hear the case.
Then, if the grand jury decides there is enough evidence to charge Harris with a crime, it will give the superior court a true bill of indictment, which allows the superior court to hear the case, she said.
A true bill of indictment means the grand jury thought the case was worthy of a trial.