Ross Harris: guilty of much, but of murder?

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Ross Harris: guilty of much, but of murder?

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Kelly J. Huff
A tear rolls down the cheek of Justin Ross Harris, the father of a toddler who died after police say he was left in a hot car for about seven hours, as he sits during his bond hearing in Cobb County Magistrate Court, Thursday, July 3, 2014, in Marietta, Ga. Harris who police say intentionally killed his toddler son by leaving the boy inside a hot SUV was exchanging nude photos with women the day his son died and had looked at websites that advocated against having children, a detective testified Thursday. At that same hearing, a judge refused to grant bond for Harris, meaning he will remain in jail. (AP Photo/Marietta Daily Journal, Kelly J. Huff, Pool)

Living “child free”

Part of the “child free” movement on the Internet, which police say Ross Harris once investigated, is quiet and rational place for “nonparents” to discuss their choices and why they made them.

refugees.bratfree.com has its share of rational discussion, but the site often becomes profane and angry and, at best, disdainful of parents. Bratfree commenters have developed their own language.

Parents are “breeders” and “parunts.”

A mother is typically called a “moo,” a father is a “duh” or “duhddy.” Children are “kyds,” although infants may be referred to as “loaves” and toddlers as “toadlers.”

One discussion thread at bratfree on Ross Harris is headed: “Duh busted for intentional PNA by car.”

PNA appears to stand for “postnatal abortion.”

Even the angriest commenters on bratfree take pains to point out that they don’t hate children and do not wish them harm, and they are outraged that Harris is being associated with the child-free movement. Said one:

“Lurking parents: childfree people had nothing to do with this horrific crime. It’s your kind that murder and harm children. You have kids, then decide you don’t want them, and [expletive] like this happens… . And spare me the “he/she suffered enough” melodrama. There is no excuse for hurting a small child. A child should feel loved and safe with its parents and family. It shouldn’t be made to die a terrible, painful death all because its parents changed their minds. This terrible crime is on you!!”

 

The facts on filicide

Earlier this year, researchers at Brown University published an analysis of more than 94,000 cases of filicide reflected in FBI arrest data. The killings, which took place over 32 years, made up 15 percent of all homicide arrests reported by local and state police agencies to the FBI.

According to the analysis, the younger the child, the more likely it was to be killed. Fathers were slightly more likely than mothers to be the killer, except in cases involving children younger than 12 months. Victims were more likely to be boys than girls. Fathers were more likely to kill sons, and mothers were more likely to kill daughters. Children were in no more danger from stepparents than genetic parents.

The FBI data do not address the circumstances surrounding the homicides, such as the killer’s mental state or motive. The researchers proposed three broad impetuses for child killings based largely on animal research: neurotransmitter malfunctions; hormonal imbalances; and perceived threat or disadvantage.

Source: “Toward a more holistic understanding of filicide: A multidisciplinary analysis of 32 years of U.S. arrest data,” by Timothy Y. Mariano, Heng Choon (Oliver) Chan and Wade C. Myers.

 

Life insurance for kids

Associated Press

The mention that Ross Harris held $27,000 in two life insurance policies on his son has drawn attention to policies that families sometime buy for children. They are somewhat unusual, and a benefit of $25,000 is on the high side, although no unheard-of. Some facts:

  • Bought by parents, grandparents or anyone directly related to the child. Buyers are required to have an “insurable interest” in the person covered, meaning the buyer wants the person covered to actually live.
  • Insurers require documentation of how a covered individual dies, and the policies will not pay out if the beneficiary is convicted of murdering the person covered.
  • Life insurance policies typically have a cash value while the covered person is still living. Often, a parent or grandparent buys a policy with the intention of giving the child the option later in life of cashing in the policy.
  • Policies for adults typically offer much higher death benefits than those for children. Life insurance with benefits of $5,000 to $10,000 — enough to cover funeral expenses — are typical.
  • Life insurance policies on children represent less than 1 percent of the overall life insurance market, one expert said.

 

Etti Baranoff, associate professor of insurance at Virginia Commonwealth University, added, “The nature of life insurance is to provide for economic security if the parent dies, not the other way around.”

 

The facts on filicide

Earlier this year, researchers at Brown University published an analysis of more than 94,000 cases of filicide reflected in FBI arrest data. The killings, which took place over 32 years, made up 15 percent of all homicide arrests reported by local and state police agencies to the FBI.

According to the analysis, the younger the child, the more likely it was to be killed. Fathers were slightly more likely than mothers to be the killer, except in cases involving children younger than 12 months. Victims were more likely to be boys than girls. Fathers were more likely to kill sons, and mothers were more likely to kill daughters. Children were in no more danger from stepparents than genetic parents.

The FBI data do not address the circumstances surrounding the homicides, such as the killer’s mental state or motive. The researchers proposed three broad impetuses for child killings based largely on animal research: neurotransmitter malfunctions; hormonal imbalances; and perceived threat or disadvantage.

Source: “Toward a more holistic understanding of filicide: A multidisciplinary analysis of 32 years of U.S. arrest data,” by Timothy Y. Mariano, Heng Choon (Oliver) Chan and Wade C. Myers.

 

Life insurance for kids

Associated Press

The mention that Ross Harris held $27,000 in two life insurance policies on his son has drawn attention to policies that families sometime buy for children. They are somewhat unusual, and a benefit of $25,000 is on the high side, although no unheard-of. Some facts:

  • Bought by parents, grandparents or anyone directly related to the child. Buyers are required to have an “insurable interest” in the person covered, meaning the buyer wants the person covered to actually live.
  • Insurers require documentation of how a covered individual dies, and the policies will not pay out if the beneficiary is convicted of murdering the person covered.
  • Life insurance policies typically have a cash value while the covered person is still living. Often, a parent or grandparent buys a policy with the intention of giving the child the option later in life of cashing in the policy.
  • Policies for adults typically offer much higher death benefits than those for children. Life insurance with benefits of $5,000 to $10,000 — enough to cover funeral expenses — are typical.
  • Life insurance policies on children represent less than 1 percent of the overall life insurance market, one expert said.

Etti Baranoff, associate professor of insurance at Virginia Commonwealth University, added, “The nature of life insurance is to provide for economic security if the parent dies, not the other way around.”

Long before his son was born, Ross Harris was known around the office as “Soccer Dad,” so intensely did he want a child. And after Cooper Harris arrived 22 months ago, his father wouldn’t shut up about him, to the point that one colleague says people tired of hearing about the baby.

Is this a man who would deliberately leave his son to die in the family SUV?

In the public mind, yes. Support for Harris had already turned to suspicion; on Thursday, with just a few words of testimony by a Cobb County police detective, suspicion hardened into loathing.

As his son struggled in the broiling car, Harris was sitting in his air-conditioned office, sending photos of his genitals to women he had encountered online, the detective said. Harris also returned to his car at midday – something he did not tell the police about – ostensibly to place a package on the front seat, but really, the detective implied, to gauge the progress of his murder plot.

Social media erupted with anger and calls for an execution: lock Harris in a hot car and let him die as his son did. No trial needed.

And yet, if the public is done with Justin Ross Harris, 33, medical science and the law have barely begun to consider him.

Psychiatrists who study criminal behavior said Harris’ sexual activities, while repellent, have little bearing on whether he set out to kill his son. Research shows no link, they said, between parents who are unfaithful to their spouses and those who kill their children.

Atlanta criminal defense attorney Ed Garland, meanwhile, said that although Thursday’s hearing affirmed that prosecutors have probable cause to seek indictments, it left him with the impression that the case against Harris is “pretty damn weak.”

“All of that evidence was not relevant to show whether this was a deliberate act,” Garland said. “It’s a stretch and a leap to connect all that to a knowing and deliberate killing of his own child.”

As for the people who know Harris, most appeared stunned and saddened by the crude revelations. The dissonance between the Harris they know and the Harris who emerged in police testimony was truly confounding.

But many were not ready to give up on him.

 

‘We’re pro-Ross because we know Ross’

Before he was a software engineer at Home Depot in Vinings, before his doughy face turned up on every TV screen in America, Ross Harris was the voice on the other end of the phone for people who dialed 911 in Tuscaloosa. He worked as emergency dispatcher from 2006 to 2009.

The city police here have been instructed not to say a word to the media about the case, said one officer, who declined to say anything more.

A police department employee who knew Harris spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution only under a guarantee of anonymity. Attempts to reach the the person a second time, as agreed, to check facts were unsuccessful.

“I don’t think less of him” even after Thursday’s revelations, the employee said. “We’re pro-Ross because we know Ross.”

The person said Harris and his wife, Leanna, wanted children so much that Ross was called “Soccer Dad” around the department long before Cooper was born. He even showed up at Halloween in that persona.

And a friend from Home Depot testified Thursday that Harris spoke of Cooper almost incessantly, so often that people were tired of hearing about him.

Yet Harris had visited an online forum devoted to discussions of living “child free,” police said. Moderators subsequently took that forum, a page on Reddit, private.

Recent posts on another child-free site, refugees.bratfree.com, includes references to Cooper’s death and assertions that child deaths in hot cars — referred to by some as “little sizzlers” — are emerging not as a series of tragic accidents but as homicides by parents.

“Looks like parents will have to get more creative … ” says one commenter. “Lil sizzlers are this decade’s SIDS.”

The court last week denied bond to Harris and sent him back to jail, where he has been since the day Cooper died.

“I don’t think he’s a flight risk,” said the Tuscaloosa Police Department employee. “All of us were saying if he gets out he’ll kill himself. I still say that.”

 

‘What’s going on in the marriage is key’

The police version of Ross Harris – a version layered with depravity, manipulation and calculation – will be hard for jurors to stomach, particularly his sexual adventures with strangers on the web.

At one point, a woman texted Harris: “Do you have a conscience?”

Harris replied with a single word, according to police.

“Nope.”

But prosecutors may have a difficult time linking Harris with a homicide, experts said.

“It’s hard to draw any connection between what people do in their sex lives and their relationships with the children,” said Dr. Peter Ash, a forensic psychiatrist and head of Emory’s Psychiatry and Law Service.

Ash said the issues that count are far more prosaic: “How distractible is he in ordinary life? Did he have a habit of leaving the child in the car?”

Dr. Phillip Resnick, who has studied filicide (parents killing children) for many years, said the key is the relationship between Ross and Leanna. If Ross planned to seek a divorce, Resnick said, Cooper might have stood in the way.

Otherwise, he said, there is no obvious motive for killing the child; Harris could simply have continued pursuing other sexual liaisons while maintaining his family life.

“The missing link is the relationship to the wife,” said Resnick, who directs the forensic psychiatry program at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “What’s going on in the marriage is the key factor.”

On the night he was arrested, Harris told investigators his marriage was happy. A different story emerged at the hearing last week. Police witnesses testified that Leanna Harris told them the couple was having “intimacy issues,” and that there was evidence she knew Ross was cheating on her.

 

‘A happy marriage and a happy little baby’

Richard and Elizabeth Bradt are close neighbors with Leanna Harris’ mother, Debra Smith Taylor, on a lake in Northport, Ala.

They were reluctant to say much, including their opinions on what was in Ross’ mind. But neither expected anything like what they heard Thursday.

“I happened to see it on CNN and I was shocked. That’s why none of it adds up to me,” Richard Bradt said. “I would not have expected any of this of Ross. I saw nothing from those two but a happy marriage and a happy little baby.”

Others in and around Tuscaloosa, particularly those who didn’t know Harris, were unforgiving.

Ashley Michelle Christian had stopped with others at a roadside stand to buy fireworks on the Fourth of July. Christian, 24, was convinced from the beginning that Harris was guilty of far more than forgetting.

“If anyone’s still taking the side that that guy’s innocent, they’re crazy,” Christian said.

Richard Lockhart, 30, was playing with his two young children at a playground in Tuscaloosa Friday.

“I think he should be left in a car without any way to get out,” Lockhart said of Harris. “No air … have it hot.”

 

‘Crimes are often not well thought out’

Jennifer Brophy, 49, is a psychiatric nurse who works at a facility for the criminally insane in Tuscaloosa. She had her suspicions about Harris even before Thursday’s revelations.

“I started getting suspicious when (it was revealed that) he went out to his car at noon,” she said. Now, she said, “I think it’s psychopathic what he did.”

But Resnick, the psychiatrist at Case Western, said not all parents who kill are mentally ill. If this case turns out to be a deliberate killing, he said, it will fall into a category he calls the unwanted child.

Parents in such cases are often quite pragmatic, lacking the delusional thinking or extreme moods characteristic of other child killers.

“You might have some personality stuff going on – someone who is selfish or narcissistic – but not what we would think of as mental illness,” Resnick said.

Ash and Resnick agree that what is known so far about Cooper’s death seems inconsistent with a deliberate homicide. Harris’ method — if it was method rather than an accident — seemed strange.

“If it was carefully planned, it doesn’t seem to me that one would do it this way,” Ash said. “Of course, crimes that are supposedly well thought out often are not all that well thought out.”

Although it flies in the face of conventional notions about families and parenting, both psychiatrists said adults who act out sexually, or even who kill children, may be devoted parents.

When a teenage girl kills a newborn because she feels unable to care for it or wants to avoid her parents’ censure, Resnick said, “it doesn’t necessarily make her a terrible person.”

“Some of these women go on to be great mothers,” he said.

 

‘This case is hinged on speculation’

The circumstantial case against Harris seems massive.

  • He held $27,000 in life insurance on Cooper and, from jail, talked with family members about how to collect on it, according to search warrants released Friday.
  • When he spoke with Leanna at the police station on the day Cooper died, she asked him, “Did you say too much?” Harris was heard to tell his wife, “I dreaded the way he would look,” according to Detective Phil Stoddard, who emphasized the past tense of the statement.
  • Harris did web searches on how children die in hot cars, Cobb police said, in addition to visiting the site that extolls the “child free” life.
  • Harris first told police that he left the car in the morning and didn’t return to it for about seven hours or more. But he was caught on surveillance video opening the front driver’s-side door sometime after lunch.
  • Police at the scene said the stench of death pervaded Harris’s car and question why he didn’t smell it, either when he opened the car after lunch or when he got into the vehicle later that afternoon and drove off.

 

Garland, the defense attorney, acknowledged that police have raised legitimate questions about Harris’s behavior.

“But these are also a series of circumstances that have many explanations,” said Garland, who is not involved in Harris’s defense. “They don’t prove anything beyond a reasonable doubt. This case is hinged on the speculation of what all this means. Where was the real evidence that showed he set out deliberately to kill his kid?”

Harris’s web searches did not surprise the Tuscaloosa police employee who once worked with him. Harris was intelligent and curious, the employee said, and he used the Internet so often that people sometimes called him “Google.”

He told the employee that, in addition to being deaf in one ear, he couldn’t smell. Harris’s partial deafness came out in testimony Thursday, but there was no mention of his having difficulty smelling. That condition could not be corroborated this weekend.

 

‘Take your son, your only son’

At StoneBridge Church in Marietta, the Harris family’s church, Pastor David Eldridge has been talking about the story of Abraham for the past couple of months.

On June 22, four days after Cooper’s death, Eldridge spoke of the loss of the little boy and the trials facing his parents, and of how congregants might support the couple with prayers and money.

Then he directed his flock to Genesis 22, in which God tells Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moria and sacrifice him there as a burnt offering.”

Staff writers Bill Rankin, Bill Torpy and Richard Halicks contributed to this article.

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