The hot car death of 22-month-old Cooper Harris is one that has captivated a nation and indeed the world. When the tragedy first occurred in Cobb County, Georgia, on June 18, many thought it was nothing more than a tragedy born of egregious stupidity. Today the tide has turned on the father of the victim, Justin Ross Harris, after computer forensics in the way of sexting was presented at his probable cause hearing on July 3 where he began to face felony murder charges in the hot car death of his son. The defense for Ross Harris has tried to dismiss the sexting evidence of Justin Ross Harris on the day that his son died as irrelevant, and being used only to vilify the accused. Maybe the sexting in the personal life of Justin Ross Harris really is irrelevant to the hot car death of his son, and that his personal life as odd as it may seem, should stay out of this case. The prosecution for Cobb County alleges otherwise. In closing at the hearing the State suggested computer forensics are going to reveal criminal activity by Justin Ross Harris in the state of Georgia going back as far as a year, and argued this made Ross Harris a flight risk. It begs the question, when does sexting become a felony? The Guardian reported on sexting laws in the UK on July 26 that gives an answer that might surprise many Americans today.
The most common sense answer to "when does sexting become a felony?" is, when the sexting involves a minor. So to many it may seem that this is a crime they would never find themselves accused of, because most people have the common sense to know who they are sexting, and to avoid such felonious behavior.
But is that the truth? New reports by the Guardian and cases illustrated by the Washington Post this week suggest that sexting among, to, by, with, and for minors is actually becoming a huge problem. Even teenagers that send saucy messages to each other now are becoming subject to these felonious charges in the UK and in America.
They are charges law enforcement takes very seriously, because these matters now become "distribution of pornography to a minor" charges, which are charges that follow the accused for the rest of their life. In the case of Justin Ross Harris, the defense has argued continuously in a number of ways that his sexting is irrelevant.
Is it really?
Do not be surprised if the Ross Harris defense team comes up with the "I did not know she was 16" defense. In most jurisdictions when it comes to the matter of the charges of distribution of child pornography, egregious stupidity is not an acceptable defense. Thus Justin Ross Harris offers relationship advice in the way of what not to do, in order to ensure it does not happen to you.
It seems by reports of cases that are occurring anywhere, what one may consider to be an enjoyable way to connect with someone you want to have fun with, could end up being a felony if you are not very careful.
The Guardian reported on Saturday that Justin Ross Harris is not alone when it comes to sexting among minors. In the UK, it is estimated that as many as 62% of the population owns or has access to a smartphone, and this rising use of technology is causing a big problem with the Nottinghamshire Police Sexual Exploitation Investigation Unit.
The Guardian is reporting that not just the sexting of to minors, but the sexting between minors is becoming a growing concern. The Nottinghamshire Sexual Exploitation Investigation Unit has been issuing many cautions to teenagers recently that are engaging in this behavior. Some officials are saying, it will reach a point where the cautions turn into charges under the UK's 1978 Protection of Children Act.
Detective Inspector Martin Hillier of the Nottingham Sexual Exploitation Investigation Unit said,
"I have grave concerns over the amount of referrals Nottinghamshire Police are receiving on a daily basis in relation to naked images being sent between or to teenagers via either social networking, texts or mobile phone apps. If a person is aged over 10 years and distributes (shares – even to friends) an indecent image then they can be arrested, charged and dealt with for this offence. If they are found guilty they must then register as a sex offender."
It's not just the UK, and on the phone of Ross Harris, that this is happening.
The Washington Post reported last week on a case out of Prince William County that may alarm some parents of teens that let their kids use their phones. A mother out of Prince William County was horrified to receive sexting messages that had been sent between her daughter and her boyfriend, but received on her phone. Now that mom is also in possession of child pornography, and party to a distributor by loaning her phone out.
The 17-year-old boyfriend is also facing felony charges, 4 years in prison, and registry on the sex offender list. The Washington Post reports that in Prince William County lawmakers have been trying to change these laws to make sexting between minors a misdemeanor as opposed to a felony, but those bills have failed.
Still think it can't happen to you?
In the case of Justin Ross Harris, Detective Phil Stoddard testified at his probable cause hearing that at least one of the women Ross Harris had been sexting recently was a minor. It is alleged that Ross began sexting a 16-year-old approximately one year ago, and had been sexting her up to the day that Cooper died.
She is now allegedly 17, and there are many reports circulating that the county she resides in is pursuing criminal charges in this case as well.
The general rule of thumb that will give the most common sense in the form of relationship advice from Justin Ross Harris would be, know who you are texting. The Toronto Relationships Examiner reported yesterday on how the computer forensics and digital sleuthing are going to be critical components of the case the Cobb County prosecutor has against Justin Ross Harris regarding the hot car death of his son.
Sexting in itself is not a crime between two consenting adults, it is even safer, and likely more enjoyable, when identities are transparent and there is no risk of felonious behavior. And, in a day and age where online dating is the norm and more and more long distance relationships are starting every day, it's a blessing.
As a criminal profiler told the Marietta Daily Journal on Friday,
"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."
In the case of Justin Ross Harris, the defense begged for the sexting of a minor, or the sexting activity at all, of Ross Harris to be left out of the probable cause hearing. It was cited as irrelevant. The entire act of leaving Cooper in the car on that day is being mitigated by the defense as a simple careless act of forgetfulness.
In closing defense lawyer even compared leaving Cooper Harris in the car that morning to the same line of thinking one goes through when they leave leftovers in the car after taking a doggy bag home from dinner out at a restaurant. Maddox Kilgore, attorney for the defense even said that it wasn't even negligent enough to support a misdemeanor charge.
The prosecution for Cobb County that is building a felony murder case on the foundation of child cruelty in the second degree against Justin Ross Harris alleges otherwise.
"Been a bit of a theater here. It was interesting he talked about leftovers…leftovers in the car, you get out of the car, you go in the house you remember 30 minutes later, an hour later, whatever. Oh, I left some spaghetti in the car! This was a child. Not a child left out for 30 minutes. Not a child left out for an hour. A child left in a car for over 7 hours.
While that baby was out cooking in his car, showing his private parts to other people, talking to everybody else in the world and everything else but his child. He gets an email that day from the day care, he didn't stick his head in the car [on his lunch hour] because he knew exactly what he was going to find.
Judge, one of the things you have is common sense and reason. You've seen the photographs. You know where that car seat was.
30 seconds after he had kissed his son goodbye for the last time, that's where he made that decision to go to work. We believe the evidence has shown much more than cruelty in the second degree, we believe it shows much more than that, we believe the evidence has shown that this was intentional.
However at this point we are asking you to bind it over on the warrant that you have, and hold the defendant on this warrant felony murder based on cruelty to children in the second degree. I just, I just don't even believe it is a close decision, Judge."
Judge Frank Cox must have agreed because his ruling to find probable cause that led to denying bond and suggesting this may even be a death penalty case came within minutes of closing arguments. It was not even a close decision.
Do you enjoy sexting? Do you have any practical tips of safety or precautionary relationship advice to share from your experiences?