Before that terrible day, Leanna Harris’s expression in pictures was all white teeth and crinkled blue eyes. Though young, the 30-year-old looked even younger in those images, as though she was still a college kid at the University of Alabama. In one, which has now made the rounds of social media, she grins beside her husband and infant son, Cooper.
But beneath it on a Facebook page dedicated to humiliating her is proof of the distance now separating her former life from the present. “Look at those two twisted demons he had for parents,” one woman wrote. “God will get you and you will pay. … Where are you tears, you scumbag?”
Another message spawned beneath a black-and-white YouTube video of Cooper. “I hope you and your ugly cud chewing cow wife burn in hell for murdering this baby,” a commenter wrote. Another said, “I hope you and your husband rot in hell. I hope his screams haunt you until you finally cave and admit what you did!”
The details of the tragedy are by now well-known. On June 18, Justin Ross Harris buckled his 22-month son into a rear-facing car seat, pulled into his work and ambled inside. Hours later, he returned to the car, according to a Cobb County criminal warrant, but didn’t save the boy. More time passed, and then witnesses at a nearby shopping center heard “squealing tires” and a man’s screams. “Oh, my God, what have I done?” yelled Harris, who has since been charged in Georgia court with felony murder and second degree child cruelty. “My God, my son is dead!”
What happened next revealed less about Cooper Harris’s death than it did about modern social and news media, which can instantaneously anoint heroes and damn villains based on little information. Almost immediately following the charging of Justin Harris, TV broadcasters and social-media conspirators pieced together a disparate assortment of words, expressions, tidbits dropped by police — who have not charged Leanna Harris with anything — and innuendo, all of which suggested she might have had something to do with murder.
They said she wasn’t morose enough at her child’s funeral. They were dubious when Leanna, a deeply religious woman, said she wanted Cooper to remain in heaven rather than “this broken world.” Why, they asked, wasn’t she more angry at her husband? Why did she Google hot-car deaths on the Internet? “#LeannaHarris needs to be ARRESTED!,” one woman wrote on Twitter. “She is as guilty as he is!!!”
What we are witnessing, Leanna Harris’s attorney said in a statement Tuesday, is a trial by media.
“Newspapers, television and online media have fostered a poisonous atmosphere in which Leanna’s every word, action and emotion — or failure to cry in front of a crowd — is scrutinized for some supposed hidden meaning,” attorney Lawrence Zimmerman said. “Reporters have delved into Leanna’s upbringing, her employment, quizzed people for information about her marriage, and her sex life.”
It’s not dissimilar, he said, to what happened to Centennial Olympic Park bombing hero Richard Jewell in 1996. After the FBI named Jewell as a “person of interest” in the bombings, media reports went to town on him for a crime he didn’t commit. His name was eventually cleared.
Like Jewell, Leanna Harris has been the focus of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, which in a July 4 article cast suspicion on her. “Based on her own, sometimes confounding words, along with evidence disclosed at her spouse’s explosive probable cause hearing Thursday, many are wondering whether there’s another side to Leanna Harris,” reporter Christian Boone wrote. “Whatever Leanna Harris’ role winds up being in this case — witness, defendant or supportive wife — prosecutors and the public are taking note of her public actions. What they’ve seen so far is stoicism that seems at odds with what has become a public tragedy.”
The article continued:
The 30-year-old dietitian, who two years ago moved to Cobb from Tuscaloosa, Ala., has not been charged with any crimes. But police have disclosed that, like her husband, she had researched children dying in hot vehicles prior to her son Cooper’s death, telling officers it was her “worst fear.” On average, 38 kids die each year after being trapped inside automobiles, according to KidsAndCars.org. Investigators described her behavior the day of her son Cooper’s death as odd, if not suspicious.
When informed by workers at her son’s daycare facility that Cooper had never been dropped off, she calmly responded, “Ross must have left him in the car. There’s no other explanation,” according to Cobb County Police Det. Phil Stoddard’s testimony on Thursday. Then, when reunited with her husband at Cobb police headquarters after he had been charged with murder, Leanna Harris asked him, “Did you say too much?” according to Stoddard.
“There isn’t enough to make her a co-conspirator … yet,” said criminal defense lawyer Esther Panitch.
Along with other media personalities, Nancy Grace picked up the scent, doing a segment that wondered, “Was mommy in on murder plan?” Then the broadcaster Dr. Drew, who has exhaustively covered Leanna Harris, tweeted, “Could Leanna Harris be the mastermind behind her 22-month-old son’s death? #HotCarDeath.” And: “Should Leanna Harris be charged in the death of her 22-month-old son?”
“Hell yeah!” responded one person.
The mob mentality on social media is not unique to the Leanna Harris case, social scientists agree. The Internet gives its users almost unfettered capacity to shame strangers without fear of retribution. Some of them, Harvard professor Jonathan Zittrain told the New Yorker, are those “who think they’re the Bloodhound Gang and want to solve the case.” Members of Reddit belong to this cohort; after the Boston bombing, some built an unsubstantiated case against one young man. “By the time people have torches and pitchforks, the system has gone wrong,” Zittrain said.
Others simply shame for shaming’s sake. The urge isn’t new. But “now, instead of making norm violators run around wearing a big red A on their chest, we make Facebook pages that exhort people to “LIKE THIS IF YOU THINK HESTER PRYNNE IS A DIRTY SKANK!” wrote researcher Kate Miltner of the Social Media Collective. “Shaming is a tool that people use for all sorts of reasons — not only to enforce norms, but to feel superior, exact revenge, make a joke.”
Few, however, appear to be joking in regard to Leanna Harris. “All the interviews stating that you were more worried about your old man than your child you should be ashamed,” one Facebook user said. “You make me sick.”
As of Wednesday morning, prosecutors showed no sign of filing charges against Harris, and today her attorney said she “asks that she be allowed to grieve in private without reporters calling, following or watching her home. … Please allow her the dignity to mourn her son in private.”