Let’s Google That: The Role of Internet Search History in Criminal Investigations

by / 0 Comments / 465 View / July 13, 2014

Down in Atlanta, where the sun rises high and city lights dance brightly like crystal oil lamps even from the windows of an above soaring jet, a legal battle‒one of vehicle induced saunas and parental irresponsibility‒ is raging, drawing forth questions of intent and malice.

On June 18, Justin Ross Harris, 33, was arrested after his twenty-two month son Cooper was left strapped to a car seat for seven hours on a blazing southern day and died from hyperthermia. Harris, who is pleading not guilty on charges of murder and child cruelty, claims to have forgotten to drop his son off at daycare on his way to work, having found Cooper’s body only when he and his two friends went to drop off some lightbulbs purchased earlier that day.  While witnesses have confirmed that Harris was visibly distraught upon discovering his child, crying “What have I done?” repeatedly, his reputation in the eyes of society stands not as a caring and loving father, but as a cold-hearted and twisted criminal. This sudden shift in perspective‒initially, much of the public regarded him as the former‒ was catalyzed not by forensic evidence‒the toxicology report of Cooper’s body has revealed nothing abnormal or potentially incriminating‒but by Harris’s internet search history, which included research on heat-related deaths in cars and the temperatures required to induce fatal suffocation in toddlers.

Harris, who upon questioning admitted to his searches, has in many ways given the case a streamlined form that will more than likely end with the slamming of prison bars and a pile of convictions. After all, prosecutors can use this search history to identify‒or at the very least assess‒ malintent as well as his initial claim of forgetfulness.

Yes, there is no denying that the Internet has given our legal system a method of connecting the dots in what would otherwise be a murky and jumbled blueprint of the human psyche. Yet, while I do believe that Harris is far from one hundred percent clean, I also find it difficult to brush off the seemingly infinite weight we have placed on what is truly an intangible and somewhat biased proponent of conviction.

Internet history, as we are all aware, is limited in that it cannot identify a specific individual behind a specific search. That is, had Harris not admitted to investigators that he had conducted the above research, it would be far more difficult to invalidate his claim and prove premeditation – two factors that present great influence in the courtroom. This consideration is important for two reasons: for one, prosecutors have expressed interest in pursuing the death penalty which, in the state of Georgia, applies to murders that are “outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible, or inhuman in that [they] involve torture, depravity of mind, or an aggravated battery to the victim.” While the nature of Harris’s crime fits this description, this punishment can only be pursued when malintent and premeditation are clear-cut and definite. Secondly, as one additional complication, Harris’s wife also admitted to conducting Internet searches similar to her husband’s; police investigators have yet to explicitly identify on whose computer the search history was found, instead relying on Harris’s own words as a means of prosecuting him. Harris’s wife has yet to be included in the charges.

Now, let us play devil’s advocate for one minute.  Assume that Harris denied allegations made regarding his search history, or that the only individual who admitted to such searches was his wife. Would we, as a general public, be as certain and convinced of his guilt? Would we be as quick to dismiss the possibility of Cooper’s death being an accident? Would Harris’s wife‒who until this point has been subjugated to nothing other than the reproach of those around her‒ be treated as an assailant and charged as well?

Also, for the sake of considering the entire spectrum, what if Harris, knowing that Internet history can oversee a criminal proceeding, conducted his prior search such that he would be able to later present himself as a parent who was simply wondering how long a child can be left in a vehicle in a certain climate? At this point, would we blame the Internet for misguiding him?

I mention the above not to undermine the role that technology can play or the horrible magnitude of Harris’s actions, but to make a general statement concerning our trust of such technology. As Harris’s situation has shown, a courtroom can easily be turned upside down by the introduction of this media‒in this case for the better since the timing of his searches and his willingness to admit them almost exactly align with his actions. That being said, we must, for the sake of our nation’s future, remain diligent and cautious of all substantiation presented, careful to treat physical proof of premeditation as generally more significant than a list of websites. At this point, the prosecution is relatively lacking in the former, and while their argument may be able to stand even so, we must reiterate to ourselves that this scenario will not always unravel as smoothly as it has. While this verdict will certainly leave a mark on our modern world, it cannot and hopefully will not set into stone a binding precedent that will only muddle subsequent court cases.

Looking back on the Casey Anthony trial of 2008, for example, I cannot help but wonder if Anthony‒who was acquitted after being accused of murdering her daughter with chloroform and abandoning her body in a river‒might have been wholeheartedly convicted if an Internet search history was presented. Despite the fact that forensics and DNA testing were unable to draw a strong connection between Anthony and her daughter‒again, this is not to say that I find her to be any more or less guilty than she was determined to be‒would a search history override all that,  both in our minds and in verdict?

I hope and pray that Harris’s final verdict is one based on justice and fact.  What he did, regardless of his intent, is disgusting and makes me sick to my stomach. While I am confident that his search history is a powerful form of evidence against him, I hope that the matter is treated with both dignity and fragility. And most of all, I hope that crimes as horrible as this cease to exist in our future. I may not be a lawyer, but I am a human being, and the empathy I show for the life of Cooper Harris will stand regardless of the final sentencing.


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