The Atlanta Journal Constitution has been following the hot car death case of 22-month-old Cooper Harris of Cobb County, Georgia, closely and reported on July 25 that “digital sleuthing” will be the key to this case. The Atlanta Journal Constitution has mapped out what that will entail in the next step of the investigation. The Marietta Daily Journal also reported on July 25 that a criminal profiler has looked at all of the evidence in this case and pointed out that even without the computer forensics, some signs of deception are present in the case that the State is building against the father of the victim, Justin Ross Harris. Justin Ross Harris is in jail and has been denied bond on the felony murder charges related to the hot car death of his son.
What started off as a hot car death tragedy that many believed to be a simple case of a forgetful and distracted parent has turned into a story that is fraught with inconsistencies, deception, a deviant criminal history, and digital footprints that investigators are hoping lead the way to justice for Cooper Harris. The secrets behind the double life of Cooper’s father, Justin Ross Harris started to come out during his probable cause hearing on July 3 in Cobb County, Georgia, where he begun to face charges of felony murder based on child cruelty in the second degree for the hot car death of his son.
During that hearing computer discussions played a large role in the testimony against Justin Ross Harris, and the State alleged that a lot more computer forensic evidence will come out in the investigation that could even lead to far more serious charges against Justin Ross Harris.
This case centers around two different versions of events on the day that 22-month-old Cooper Harris died in Cobb County, Georgia. The defense is alleging that Justin Ross Harris simply forgot Cooper in his car that day and that the State has no evidence to suggest criminal negligence according to how the law is written.
The State is alleging that it goes much deeper than that, and stated at the probable cause hearing that a mountain of computer forensics will speak to an intent that warrant not only the charges in the warrant, but possibly even more serious charges than that.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported what that will entail. The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported on July 25 that as many as 6 devices, if not more, were secured in a search warrant to investigate what the computer forensics are in this case.
Seized by the Cobb County Sheriff’s Department from Ross Harris were his iPhone, an Apple laptop, a Lenovo laptop given to him by his employer, a Dell computer tower, an Apple iPad, and a Google Chromecast which is a device that streams online videos to a television set.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution is reporting information from these devices will be used to investigate whether or not criminal negligence was at play in the hot car death of Cooper Harris. The prosecution has alleged at the probable cause hearing of Justin Ross Harris that it will, and that this investigation will also reveal a criminal history of Justin Ross Harris as well. In order for the State to allege this, they would need serious probable cause.
Seizing a series of personal technological devices from a home in an investigation does not happen every day in Cobb County, Georgia, because a significant amount of probable cause is required to warrant it. Accessing personal data devices on the mere suspicion of criminal activity is a controversial subject that has gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
This summer the New York Times was among the first to report that it was a “sweeping victory” in Washington in the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling that law enforcement in America now requires a warrant to search cellphones. The New York Times reported on June 25, exactly one week after the hot car death of Cooper Harris, that this will protect the 12 million Americans that are arrested every year, with many of them being arrested for “minor crimes.”
The New York Times also asserts the U. S. Supreme Court ruling “almost certainly also applies to searches of tablet and laptop computers, and its reasoning may apply to searches of homes….and of information held by third parties like phone companies.”
Chief Justice Roberts in his ruling wrote that it is estimated that as much as 90% of the American population has a cell phone, or at least something that contains “a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives – from the mundane to the intimate.”
Chief Justice Roberts also wrote according to the New York Times,
“According to one poll, nearly three-quarters of smartphone users report being within five feet of their phones most of the time with 12 percent admitting that they even use their phones in the shower. They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, Rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps, or newspapers.
Cellphones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals. Privacy comes at a cost.”
In his ruling Chief Justice Roberts also noted the stress this would place on law enforcement, and how this would make their job more difficult.
Given this, if the police were able to execute a warrant on multiple devices based on their suspicions of Ross Harris, they would be required to have substantial probable cause to do so. Which they clearly did, and the State has alleged in their closing arguments that this information will reveal Justin Ross Harris to be a dangerous criminal.
So what happens next to the 6 or more devices seized so far from Justin Ross Harris and his wife Leanna Harris.
The AJC spoke with, Andrew Case, a New Orleans based web developer that specializes in computer forensics. Case estimates it could take months for investigators to dig through this mountain, with each discovery suggesting “fresh lines of inquiry, forcing digital investigators to re-examine all of the devices for all of that data, and then search for new evidence.”
In other words, with every new piece of information that comes up in this forensic analysis, a new investigation could occur. Was there only one minor that Ross Harris was allegedly sexting with within the past year alone?
The sexting of multiple women on the day that Cooper Harris died has been a discovery that has turned the nation against Justin Ross Harris. Information about the alleged 6 women that he was sexting that day, and maybe even more including one alleged minor will need to be procured, which is not a simple task according to Case.
Andrew Case told the AJC the first thing that will happen is the companies that developed the applications or websites that Ross Harris used when he was sexting that day would be subpoenaed to find user specific information, including IP addresses and locations. This might be difficult to get from Kik, the application that Ross Harris reportedly used on the day his son was dying in his car, as Kik does not require formal names, only user names and does not require users to confirm addresses.
The defense has argued that the sexting is irrelevant in the hot car death of Cooper Harris, and is information that is only being used to vilify Ross Harris. The State argues otherwise, saying this information could speak to the desire to live a child free life. The State also alleges that this information speaks to a criminal history, alleging that Ross Harris has been sexting with at least one minor for at least one year.
The details of these relationships, will be discovered in this investigation by the Cobb County police High Tech Crime Squad. This squad is comprised of four investigators and a Sergeant according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. The nature of the content that Ross Harris had a history of viewing is also under investigation as it did come out in this probable cause hearing that he had accessed articles and subReddits, more than once, on child free living. Ross Harris has also reportedly viewed Internet content on “how to survive in prison.”
The Marietta Daily Journal reported on July 25 on what a criminal profiler thinks of this case, in terms of the computer forensics and the intention of Ross Harris on the day of the hot car death of his son. The Marietta Daily Journal spoke with Associate Professor Stan Crowder who teaches criminal profiling and criminal justice with Kennesaw State University.
He told the Marietta Daily Journal that the computer forensics will be used to establish what is a normal behavior profile for Justin Ross Harris.
“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?”
As Chief Justice Roberts wrote in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, these devices document almost every event of our lives, and what is normal for Ross Harris and what is not if anything, will be revealed in this investigation.
Crowder said, “Evidence can’t lie, it can’t be persuaded. It can be misinterpreted, but it can’t be changed.” Crowder told the Marietta Daily Journal that the information that the State finds on the alleged double life of Justin Ross Harris could be key in this case, but that it could even point to a normal behavior pattern for Ross if cheating on his wife had been going on for some time.
Justin Ross Harris has also been accused of watching animals die in hot car death videos. On that Crowder even seemed to point to the notion that this might not be able to be used against him, unless they can establish the intent or a pattern of intent as to why he watched that video.
“You wouldn’t be watching a video like that for entertainment. You would be watching it for learning. But, you can learn because you want to learn about preventive measures. What was the motive for the learning from the video is what will decide…that’s still being developed.”
That motive will determine whether or not he intentionally left Cooper in his car on the day in question. As to the sexting, Crowder also said that it could be found as irrelevant in the end if the habit was normal to him.
“The sexting in and of itself is a modern day thing that people used to do in the 1960’s with pictures. It’s just a different medium now. When it comes criminal is when there’s a juvenile involved.”
On the sexting, Ross’s lawyer agrees, telling Judge Frank Cox, “That has nothing to do with anything.”
Based on this information, it could very well be possible that Ross’s sexting was not criminal in relation to his son’s death. It may however be considered criminal behavior by the county that is home to the minor he was allegedly sexting on the day that his son died.
Even so, if the sexting evidence were to be removed from the criminal case against Ross Harris regarding the death of his son, Crowder says there is still a lot of explaining that Ross has to do. Crowder has detected deceptive behavior on Ross’s part in other areas.
Another element of this case that has not gotten much attention until Crowder mentioned it, is the notion that Justin Ross Harris did not tell Detective Stoddard upon his arrest that he was deaf in one ear. Detective Stoddard found that strange, as he only found out about that information at the probable cause hearing, when he was testifying. On that issue, Crowder told the Marietta Daily Journal that was deceptive behavior on the part of Justin Ross Harris, and has an explanation for that deceptive behavior.
“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.”
It’s not simply the computer forensics that will be critical in this case when it comes to speaking to state of mind for Justin Ross Harris. This data will be critical for the State to prove its case against Ross Harris, yes. While some experts will say that a lot of that data is open to interpretation, there are some elements of that data that will be black and white and indisputable.
Things like time and date stamps. Data like this is important, and indisputable, because it can and will be used to pinpoint the most critical aspect of this case which has nothing to do with computer forensics. A timeline of deception in what the State is alleging is a double life of Justin Ross Harris, that includes criminal activity in the State of Georgia in the last year.
Why would parents act deceptively during the death of an innocent child, will be the biggest question Justin Ross Harris will have to answer. This is one reason why it will be so critical for Leanna Harris to have told the truth when she said that she found out about the affairs at the same time as the rest of the world.
Deception, and how much of it is present in this case will be very important in seeking justice for Cooper Harris. That you lie at all during a critical event such like this is not just considered strange by law enforcement and behavior experts, it is suspicious.
Suspicious enough to warrant probable cause for the seizure of every device used by that family, with the exception of Leanna’s own cell phone. The State has alleged that the digital footprints that were available at the time of the probable cause hearing on July 3 were enough to prove that the defendant was a flight risk, and could not be trusted on bond. Since then, testimony provided at this probable cause hearing has been challenged, with the step brother of the accused saying that police have embellished this case.
Is the step brother of the accused a credible testimony on behalf of Justin Ross Harris?
Some say yes, as Michael Baygents has been in law enforcement for over 20 years, and testified he was a Sergeant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, on the date of the probable cause hearing. He testified that Ross Harris would not be a flight risk.
And yet Leanna Harris has already left the State.
The Toronto Relationships Examiner recently reported on how Michael Baygents told the Atlanta Journal Constitution last week that there was no motive in this case, and that to say that the Harris’s were in financial straits was “ridiculous.”
But that is not what he said at the probable cause hearing. And that is not what the defense said at the probable cause hearing either. In preparation of asking Judge Frank Cox for a bond, defense attorney asked Michael Baygents if he considered Ross Harris and Leanna Harris wealthy, asking, “Would you say that the family is not of great wealth?” to which Michael Baygents, Sergeant in the Tuscaloosa Alabama Police Department replied, “Yes.”
This testimony was used to support the defense’s request for a bond of $50 thousand dollars based on the fact that “these are people of limited means.”
The police sergeant that is saying the police have embellished this case has not only contradicted himself, but may also even be embellishing the finances from his own perspective as well. One can’t blame him, he is the brother of the accused and wants to think the best of him.
The State of course objected to all of this, saying that based on the fact that even prior to this incident, evidence from computer evidence already shows that Ross Harris had committed prior crimes in the state of Georgia, and “objected to any bond at all.”
Judge Frank Cox ruled in the probable cause hearing shown on video here,
“Based on the number one murder charge obviously, facing a minimum of life sentence with minimum mandatory 30 year sentence and conceivably in the future possibly a death penalty case, the court will deny bond today.”
The extensive information law enforcement is currently looking at can be viewed in the warrants secured against Justin Ross Harris in the slideshow presentation here. Once the computer forensics investigation, and the remainder of the investigation in the hot car death of 22-month-old Cooper Harris is complete, this information will go to the District Attorney who will determine if there is sufficient evidence to present to a grand jury.
It will be the grand jury, who sits in Cobb County, Georgia, a couple of times a week to determine if they will present a true bill of indictment that will determine if there will be a Justin Ross Harris trial.
Do you think Justin Ross Harris just forgot to leave his son in the car that day?