A Child Abuse Investigator Explains the Cooper Harris Case

By Patrick Perion

Investigating child death is one of the toughest things to do for anyone in child protection or law enforcement. I’ve worked closely with police investigating these cases for the last twenty years. While it takes an emotional toll, I find it interesting and strangely exhilarating.

Death cases are the ultimate puzzle for investigators and after you’ve done enough of them, you learn to look for certain things.  That being said, it gives me no pleasure to say that it appears that I was right about the death of Cooper Harris, the 22 month old left in his father’s car in suburban Atlanta.

Details are now coming out that this indeed seems to be a murder case, not a tragic accident. 

When investigating child death, there are certain procedures and protocols that are followed. Each state, county and city has its own unique system. Using the Cooper Harris case as a template, we’ll walk through how these cases are investigated in my area.

The first thing that happens after a child death is an initial determination of probable cause of death. In other words, was the child beaten to death, suffocated, died-in-sleep, etc?  In almost every infant death in Illinois, the Child Abuse Hotline and local Police are called to inform them. If it’s suspicious, investigators from DCFS and police are called into action.

At the outset of the case, the investigative team would interview the parents of the deceased child. Getting an initial statement sets the bedrock from which the case is built. 

In the Cooper Harris case, the story that Justin Ross Harris told was that he forgot his son Cooper in his car seat in the Hyundai Tucson he drove. He was supposed to drop Cooper at daycare but he accidentally left the child in the car for seven hours and Cooper died of hyperthermia. Harris only noticed the child after leaving work and driving a couple of miles, pulling in to a shopping mall and trying to revive his son.

After getting Harris’ statement, one of the first calls that an investigator would make would be to the daycare. The first question I would ask: “What is your procedure when children are supposed to be there but don’t show up?”  Many daycares are hyper-vigilant about children being dropped off. Did the daycare call the Harris home or Harris at work wondering about the whereabouts of the child?

After parsing Harris’ story, a seasoned investigator would question Harris getting in his car after work and not noticing the dead child for a couple of miles. The smell of death is not one that is easily confused with dirty gym clothes or a diaper that wasn’t tossed out.

I’m reasonably sure the detectives in Georgia had these same questions.  When it has been established by the investigators that the father’s story makes no sense, the team develops a list of further questions and inconsistencies. With those questions, the team in Georgia went to work. 

Through some basic shoe-leather investigation, the detectives apparently discovered that Harris ate breakfast with his son at a Chick-fil-A around 20 minutes before “forgetting” that he was in the car. Next they discovered that Harris had returned to the vehicle during his lunch break and threw something in the front seat. 

With those facts in hand, the questioning, which would likely be moved to the police department at this point, would directly confront the inconsistencies. In my experience, the discrepancies are soft peddled early in the interrogation. We ask for answers to help sort out those discrepancies. If the suspect gives weak answers or crazy explanations, the team digs in and goes harder at the suspect to get to the truth.

It’s also been revealed that someone at Harris’ work computer Google searched information about how long it takes for an animal to die in a hot car.  This is information that investigators would typically hold back for an “a-ha” moment. If the the suspect is making excuses about the other inconsistencies, this would be kept in reserve to be used to try to get a confession.

If the suspect doesn’t confess, the case falls back on the forensics. In the Harris case, the autopsy was performed the day after the child was found.  Autopsies are fascinating to attend. You have to have a strong stomach and the ability to process what you’re seeing by telling yourself that you’re watching a science project. According to reports, Cooper Harris died of hyperthermia.

At an autopsy, after the gross dissection, the pathologist takes a micro-dissection of brain, liver, kidney, lung and spleen, to be sent off for tests. There is also a draw of ocular fluid, blood from the heart and a search of the stomach contents. In the Harris case, I’m sure these things were done and the investigative team is awaiting results.

At some point during the investigation of the Cooper Harris death, the investigative team realized this was most likely not an accident.  I’m sure the team members are doing a thorough review of all the evidence. They’re typing their reports and piecing together the puzzle.

If the team in Georgia is as good as the people I work with, they’re masters at solving the puzzle. When all is said and done, the goal of any child death investigation is finding the truth. Too many times, the truth is that a parent did the unthinkable and killed their child.

Patrick’s blog can be read here

(image via Facebook)