Atlanta Journal-Constitution reviewed video surveillance and noted discrepancies between what they viewed and what was described in police detective’s testimony.
It was less than three weeks ago when Cobb County, Georgia police detective Phil Stoddard sat on the witness stand in the probable cause hearing in the case of Justin Ross Harris, the Georgia dad who stands accused of leaving his son to die in a hot car in June.
Stoddard provided testimony at the July 3rd hearing that described Harris’ online activities, including details that Harris had viewed information about hot car deaths and visited a Reddit page devoted to child-free living. The detective also indicated that Harris had allegedly sexted with several women during the day as his son died.
Assistant District Attorney Chuck Boring told the judge during that hearing, “We plan to show he [Harris] wanted to lead a child-free life.”
Also considered pertinent testimony from Stoddard during that hearing was the description of surveillance video from the parking lot of the Home Depot office where Harris worked.
But an independent review by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of that surveillance video and other evidence presented in the case shows some potential discrepancies in what had been described by detective Stoddard.
Discrepancies in description of video surveillance
During the July 3rd probable cause hearing, Detective Phil Stoddard testified, and state prosecutor Chuck Boring reiterated, that video surveillance showed Harris had waited 30 seconds before getting out of his car after arriving at work on the morning of June 18th.
But according to the AJC article, the “video shows that Harris was in the car for less than 15 seconds, during which he put the vehicle in park, turned off the engine and then gathered his smart phone, computer bag and drink before sliding out of the driver’s seat.”
Detective Stoddard during that hearing also described the moments when Harris returned to his car after being dropped off by friends after lunch, at which time Harris tosses some light-bulbs he had purchased into the car. That portion of the transcript is below. [Note: The unidentified prosecutor is Chuck Boring and the unidentified defense attorney is Maddox Kilgore].
STODDARD: The car pulls up, and from interviewing the two friends, he went to lunch with, they pull up, he gets out of the car, they immediately take off. You can see him walk up to the car. He approaches the car from the driver’s side. Approaches his car. Opens up the driver’s side door, and he kind of tosses the light bulbs inside. He’s all the way inside the frame but tosses the light bulb inside the car.
UNIDENTIFIED PROSECUTOR: Does he approach from the rear or the front?
STODDARD: From the left-hand side. Kind of an angle, judge.
UNIDENTIFIED PROSECUTOR: Is that angle consistent with that photograph the judge has?
STODDARD: It is.
UNIDENTIFIED PROSECUTOR: Where he can see the car seat?
UNIDENTIFIED DEFENSE ATTORNEY: That calls for speculation. I object to that.
UNIDENTIFIED PROSECUTOR: I just asked if it’s consistent, judge.
UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: Overruled.
UNIDENTIFIED PROSECUTOR: When he approaches, does it appear — is this video — can you describe to the judge how it appears he reaches in and where his head is?
STODDARD: When he reaches in, he comes up, he opens up the door. And as he’s reaching in, turns his head a little bit. He’s in there, he has a clear view, and he kind of turns his head and then just tosses the light bulbs into the car.
The AJC article points out what could be an important discrepancy here. When it reviewed the video, the AJC found instead that Harris’ eyes remain above the roof line of the vehicle, which sounds different than what Stoddard had described.
“But the video shows that Harris’ eyes remain above the SUV’s roof line. Only his arm and shoulder reach inside the vehicle. On the video it shows it took three seconds for him to open the door, place the light bulbs inside and close the door.”
Another key piece of testimony in the probable cause hearing was the description from Stoddard of Harris hesitating as another person passed by him while he was on his way back toward his building from the car.
The transcript continues from where it left off above:
UNIDENTIFIED PROSECUTOR: After he does that, does he hang out at the car very long or anything of that nature?
UNIDENTIFIED PROSECUTOR: What does he do?
STODDARD: He shuts the door, turns around and immediately starts walking into the Home Depot.
UNIDENTIFIED PROSECUTOR: At some point, as he’s walking back away from that car, does anyone else walk by him and how does he react?
STODDARD: It appears another — we’ll say another person — passes him, walking towards his car, as he’s walking away from his car. As that person approaches him, he stops. He kind of stands there for a little bit as the guy walks past him. You can see that man walk up towards his car. He starts a little bit, Justin starts a little bit, he stops. The guy walks past the car and Justin gets on the phone and goes inside the Home Depot.
Between the testimony from Stoddard and the emphasis later placed on this point by the prosecutor during the July 3rd hearing, one was left with the impression that Harris seemed keenly aware of those around him as he walked back to his building.
But the description from the AJC article presents a different perspective.
The video does show Harris pass a man walking toward the car. In fact, the man walks through the open space next to Harris’ parked SUV, passing within three or four feet of the vehicle and walking the full length of it. If he had turned his head and glanced inside, he almost certainly would have seen Cooper.
The video shows that Harris does stop briefly, but his eyes are on his cell phone, which he pokes at with his free hand. He never looks back at the man who walks past his car.
Harris also walks past another man who is headed in the direction of the car. Once again, Harris does not look back at this man. In both instances, he appears oblivious to the passersby.
Brother of Harris criticizes police investigation
The AJC also spoke exclusively to Harris’ half brother, Michael Baygents, who criticized the police investigation and suggested Stoddard “rushed to judgment.”
Baygents, a veteran police officer in Tuscaloosa, Ala., is sharply critical of the testimony of Cobb County police Detecitve[sic] Phil Stoddard, who detailed the case against Harris during the hearing. This is the first time Baygents has spoken publicly since he testified.
“It’s been frustrating to see it portrayed the way it’s been by the police department,” said Baygents, a sergeant and an instructor for the Law Enforcement Academy in Tuscaloosa. “I’m very angry with them. I think they rushed to judgment. I think Stoddard rushed to judgment. I think he made a terrible mistake.”
He disputed several points of evidence:
- The prosecution’s suggestion that Harris and his wife, Leanna, had financial difficulties. Baygents has reviewed the couple’s finances and says: “To say they were in financial trouble is just crazy.”
- The assertion that Harris might have killed his son to collect on two insurance policies, one for $25,000 and another for $2,000. “To think that he killed Cooper for $27,000 is a joke,” Baygents said.
- The claim that Harris wanted to pursue a “child-free” life, based on his visit to a web page for childless people. “I know Ross,” he said. “Cooper was his buddy. To see him portrayed as a terrible parent is just not right,”
Baygents described a brother who was planning for a cruise with both of their families, and he emphasized that Harris had specifically sought out a cruise line that had activities for children. He also said the Harrises were saving up for a larger home in an area with good schools because they wanted to have another child.
As for the insurance policies that became a focus of attention for police, Baygents said he’d previously learned of the policies while he and Harris were discussing burial arrangements for Cooper. Harris had instructed his brother to use the money for Cooper’s funeral.
Investigation is ongoing
As I noted in a prior post on this case, while some of the details recently revealed by police, specifically the revelations of alleged sexting activities, may say something about the character of Harris, a married man, one key issue in upcoming weeks will be whether or not any of it is actually evidence that supports the accusations against him.
Authorities have indicated that the investigation is still ongoing, so it remains to be seen what other information may be unearthed in upcoming weeks and whether or not it will be directly relevant in the case. The public information officer for the office of the District Attorney would not comment on the AJC reports, while an officer with the Cobb County Police said that they stood by the detective’s testimony, according to HLN.
Given the apparent possible discrepancies as described by the AJC in some of the evidence thus far, it will certainly be interesting to see if this changes how investigators and attorneys approach the case going forward.
Nonetheless, the defense may still be facing what could be a challenging amount of circumstantial evidence.
The AJC article is available via a paid day subscription for under $1.00 for those who aren’t regular subscribers. I would suggest that it is worth reading in its entirety, as it addresses several other points as well that I haven’t included here simply in the interest of time and post length.
[Featured image: WXIA / USA Today video]