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Ross Harris: Could Viewing Unsolicited Internet Ads Establish Criminal Intent?

Could Viewing Unsolicited Internet Ads Establish Criminal Intent?

Justin "Ross" Harris is the Cobb County man charged with murder for leaving his 22-month old son in a "hot car" while at work. Some of the most inflammatory evidence against Harris was the fact that Harris viewed Reddit pages[1] related to child deaths in hot vehicles, prior to his son's painful death. What on earth led the 33-year-old father to inquire into the fatal possibility of his son dying in a hot car?

Just 38 days before Harris left baby Cooper in the family SUV, Georgia Governor Nathan Deal launched the "Look Again" campaign supported by five state agencies and three partner organizations. Since 2010 seven Georgia children have died due to vehicular heat stroke. According to a statistic published on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's website ( along with Texas, Indiana, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Virginia, Georgia has one of the highest incidences of heatstroke deaths of children three and younger left in cars. Approximately 600 children have died from vehicular heat stroke in Georgia since 2008.

The "Look Again" campaign video went viral on YouTube on May 10, 2014, and has since garnered over 14,600 views. The focus on the campaign, however, was not criminal prosecution of parents who leave their children inside the car unattended. Instead, the campaign was aimed at the large number of childcare facilities, which have been violating state regulations at an alarming rate, including leaving children in hot vehicles. The video begins with the mantra: "This is a warning." It then describes the story of two dead young toddlers.

First interviewed was the mother of Sydney from Clarkston County who described how her daughter was playing unattended when she climbed into the family vehicle and then became trapped inside. Her older brother found her in the fetal position behind the passenger seat dead from vehicular heat stroke. Next, the father of baby Jazmin from Clayton County told the story how his daughter went on a daycare field trip with 13 other children but Jazmin did not return home. She, like Ross Harris' 22-month old son Cooper, was left in a hot van by caregivers, and after hours in the sweltering heat, she died from heat stroke. The daycare license of that facility was revoked.

During the same time period that the "Look Again" campaign was gaining speed, Ross Harris is alleged to have viewed Reddit postings regarding the death of children in vehicles and life without children. At a preliminary hearing on July 3, 2014, the prosecution alleged that Harris visited a subreddit[2] about "people who die," which shows videos of people dying (suicide, executions, war, etc.). He also visited a subreddit called child-free and searched the Internet for "how to survive in prison" and "age of consent for Georgia." The prosecution intends to argue that Harris' viewing activity is relevant to his criminal intent kill Cooper when the 22-month old was left unattended, and ultimately perished, on the summer day of June 18, 2014.

The prosecution's lead investigator, Phillip Stoddard, testified that Harris informed investigators he was aware of the "Look Again" campaign and was "an advocate of the turn around program" as well as "fearful of leaving his child in the car." Nevertheless, Harris was arrested at the scene where he pulled Cooper's lifeless body from the rear of the family SUV and attempted CPR while frantically calling for help from bystanders. The police officer reported that Harris said "F*** U to the officer when he asked Harris to get off his cell phone. Harris was denied bond at the preliminary hearing and the prosecution introduced evidence of Harris' "Reddit" activity as support for their case.

According to his Defense Attorney, Madox Kilgore, Harris told investigators that he wasn't sure when exactly he viewed the content, but that he visited "dozens and dozens" of pages not directly searched for. Defense further contends that the prosecution is only able to link one site to Harris' own initiative. The question still remains, however, what if this search was prompted by the recent attention given to the child daycare issue? A spokesperson for the Department of Early Child Care and Learning (DECAL) informed the public of new and increased penalties for violations in the transport of children while holding a news conference but admitted that it is not a criminal investigative committee.

Could Harris have simply clicked on the Governors' YouTube advertisement along with dozens of other related advertisements that are likely to have surfaced along with the video? Could viewing the advertisements have led Harris to research a criminal tangent on how to survive in prison, never imagining that he would soon be charged murder? And what does this mean for the rest of us who randomly click on internet advertisement and follow political agendas; should we be held culpable in the event of unfortunate circumstances related to our aimless Googling? Just what weight the jury gives this evidence of past-time prodding? Could your Google searches put you at risk for criminal prosecution?

[1] Reddit advertises itself as an entertainment, social networking service and news, website where registered community members can submit content, such as text posts or direct links and then vote submissions "up" or "down" to organize the posts and determine their position on the site's pages.

[2] Content entries are organized by areas of interest called "subreddits".