Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Emotion or Vulcan Logic?

Can you ever make a decision completely devoid of emotion? An important one, I mean, one where you've been asked to set aside your instincts and emotions and base it solely on facts and evidence?

I've mentioned before that I listen to a lot of podcasts, and a great number of them are true crime, unsolved mysteries and the like. There's one called Breakdown, from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It's pretty well done, all in all, not sensationalist even though the second season has been covering what you might consider a pretty sensational crime.

Or accident.

One of those.

This season has been following the trial of Justin Ross Harris who was accused (and convicted) of deliberately leaving his nearly two year old son Cooper locked in his car all day in 2014. Cooper, tragically, died and his father was very obviously the responsible party.

That's not really in question.

Harris had his son and instead of taking Cooper to his daycare, he drove to his work and left his son to die in the car. Harris and his attorneys claim that it was an accident, that because he did things out of order that day, because he was distracted, he had a lapse of memory and forgot that he hadn't yet taken Cooper to the daycare.

That he forgot his son.

He was responsible for Cooper's death, and no two ways about it.

And this is a thing that happens. The number of infant car deaths is terrifying, to be honest, and I don't have kids! I occasionally have my god kids, and it's unusual enough for me to be driving them around that I am constantly aware of them and checking to make sure they're okay in their carseats. But I don't have them every day, I don't have those car seats in my back seat every day. I can kind of see how, especially with the rear facing seats, you get used to seeing them there, the seats themselves can become a part of your scenery.

I can see how you could accidentally forget a child in one of those seats, and I can't imagine how painful that would be for a parent, and I'm glad that there are people working to raise awareness and to make items that will help keep these sorts of tragedies from happening.

People forget things on a near constant basis! We forget things that are incredibly important because we're distracted or it's something so routine that the memory of us having done it is almost burned into our brains, making it occasionally hard to remember whether or not we really did the thing that day, or we're just remembering having done it a million times before.

Usually, this isn't a matter of life and death. But our brains can be slippery bastards even when the consequences are unthinkable.

However, this turned into a case that wasn't as horrifically simple as an accident. Harris was tried and convicted for the deliberate death of his son. According to the prosecution, Harris did not have a memory lapse but rather intentionally locked Cooper in the car to die because he wanted to be free to pursue a life that he felt his son was holding him back from.

The prosecution presented a lot of evidence toward the fact that Harris was, in fact, a pretty awful husband and generally less than stellar person. He'd been cheating on his wife for years, hooking up with women online - some of whom turned out to be under age at the time of the interactions. He was, in fact, sexting with an under age girl the day that he left Cooper in the car.

They brought out comments and threads that Harris had made or checked into about the 'child free' lifestyle and how he 'loved his son and all but we both need escapes'. Now, plenty of people want to live the 'child free' life and they are in no way thinking about or advocating murdering children. They just don't want to have them, and so they don't.

Of course the defense pointed out the thin connection between needing a break from your child and murdering that child, but all of these things about Harris' lifestyle and actions were presented in court. The podcast played pieces of testimony, people talking about how wrong Harris' affect seemed when he discovered Cooper's body in the back seat. They talked about how, essentially, deviant he is to be cheating on his wife and having these multiple affairs while pretending to be this great family man.

There was also evidence, of course, and not just the comments that he made online. There was the fact that Harris is seen on the parking lot security seeming to watch someone as he passes them - after he had just parked the car that morning with Cooper strapped in - to see if they were going close to his car. There's the video of him going to the car at lunch and throwing a pack of lightbulbs into the car - with the argument that he had to have been able to see Cooper at that point, that even if it was an accident, he 'discovered' the mistake hours before he admitted to it and there is one witness who claims that Cooper could have still been alive at that point.

But, at least from what was relayed through the podcast, a lot of the evidence was character driven.

He was a bad person, and bad people do bad things.

He cheated on his wife and he wanted to be free of the responsibilities of being a father. So he murdered his son.

They played parts of one of his interviews with the police on the podcast and the first time he sees his wife after Cooper's death.

I admit, up until the audio of the police interview, I was torn as to whether or not I personally thought he was guilty. There are, at least for me, degrees of badness? Of evil? Just because you're willing to cheat on your wife doesn't necessarily mean that you're willing to murder, let alone murder your own helpless child.

However, the audio of his interview with the police convinced me that he did it. His reaction to being told that they're going to charge him with...I believe they said it was neglect at that point, but I could be wrong about the specific word they used there. Basically, they said that because Cooper had been in his care and due to his negligence Cooper had died, they had to charge him with this. And I'm listening, thinking, okay, okay, that's reasonable. Harris was the adult, he was responsible for Cooper's safety and well being and it might have been an accident but he failed his responsibilities and Cooper died. He didn't just get hurt, he *died*.

And then Harris proceeds to calmly *argue* with them that he shouldn't be charged with anything, that it wasn't intentional. Let me say, there is something, in listening to him speak, so *off* about his tone and his concern and his reaction that makes me think he did it. It was that fast, I decided that he was guilty and I've been listening to the rest of the podcast with that mindset.

When I heard that he was convicted I thought, 'Good. He murdered that poor baby.'

Now, after this whole thing has had time to marinate in the back of my mind, though, I'm wondering.

I'm wondering if Justin Ross Harris wasn't a philanderer, a cheat, and a generally morally reprehensible person, if I would have taken his reaction as proof positive that he did it. Certainly he didn't react the way that I imagine I would in such a situation, but I've (thankfully) never been in that situation and you never really know what you'll do when faced with something like that. But is that enough to say that he is guilty of a deliberate crime? Or could it still have been a grossly horrific accident?

And I'm just getting the bits and pieces shared over the podcast. The jurors are seeing much, much worse than what I'm hearing.

Which brings me to my question.

Can you ever really totally objectively look at something like this?

Could you, as a juror, ignore your emotional reaction to seeing a dead child? To knowing that his father is the one who caused his death? To knowing that the man has been cheating on his wife, has been doing things that are illegal and/or morally corrupt?

Could you look dispassionately at what the facts are and decide innocence or guilt based only on that and not on the emotions that you feel?


  1. Ooooo, a thinkie! And I missed reading it for a week? Shame on me! I have been reading outside a lot the last few days, and not spending as much time on the computer. I'm glad I finally saw this one waiting for me. Interesting questions, and, I really don't know that I can turn off my emotions. I'm sure my thoughts about this being a cheating man who was sexting with an under-age girl *would* color my thoughts of him even if I told myself not to let that influence me.

    It's interesting to me that hearing his response to the police is what convinced you.

    Great post even if the topic is sad. Poor little Cooper.

    1. Well, since I missed your reply for even longer I feel like the shame is all me!

      I agree, I don't think I could be unemotional about my decisions in a case like this, and I don't know that many people who could entirely divorce their emotions from the situation. But that's what we're asked to do on a jury. And if you can't and you admit that, how many people are left to be on a jury?

      Honestly, there's something just...wrong about his response to the cops. It's weird, it's off, he doesn't sound like any other genuinely grieving person I've ever listened to. I'm not an expert, but my morbid fascination for this sort of thing has led to me listening to more murder related audio than maybe the average human being? One of my new favorite shows is Murder Calls on the ID channel where they play actual 911 calls, some from the killers, some from the victims.

      The topic is very, very sad. But also important, even more so from the accidental child death angle. Because there is the tendency of people to think that it can't happen to them, but that's why it's an accident. It can happen to anyone.


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