Bill Rankin is the legal affairs reporter for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and he’ll be the first to tell you that he’s no Sarah Koenig and his true-crime podcast, Breakdown, is not quite Serial. He doesn’t have the same radio presence, and he’s not as probing, but for those of us who are deeply into this genre of podcasts, Breakdown is a more than adequate substitute (especially with Serial focused on Bowe Bergdahl this season). I prefer Breakdown to Criminal, which is very hit and miss.
The second season of Breakdown just kicked off after its first season looked into the conviction and life sentence of Justin Chapman for allegedly burning down his own house, killing an elderly neighbor (Chapman was ultimately granted a new trial, and rightfully so). The first season was a fascinating look into the failures of the legal justice system — basically, Chapman couldn’t afford his own defense, and the state provided a defense that was worse than inadequate, and it was no real fault of his defense lawyers, either (they were not afforded the time or resources to properly try his case).
The second season kicked off just this week, and it is brutal for anyone, but especially for parents. It takes up the case of Justin Ross Harris, who is about to go on trial for murder. His name may not sound familiar outside of Georgia, but most of us at least heard about his crime: He left his two-year-old son Cooper in his car for eight hours on a hot day in the summer. Cooper boiled to death, trapped in his car seat.
This is not a completely uncommon event. Nearly 40 children die each year from being left in hot cars. Most parents are not charged with murder (negligent homicide, perhaps) because most prosecutors feel like losing a child is punishment enough. What person would intentionally leave their child in a hot car, after all? Not even serial killers would do such a thing, right? It’s a slow, agonizing, and helpless death and high on the list of most parents’ worst nightmares.
Before I knew the facts of the case, I felt mostly sorry for Justin Ross Harris. I’m not saying it could happen to anyone, but I’m also not saying that I don’t go on auto-pilot sometimes and end up parked in front of my kids’ preschool before I realize that I’d meant to go to the grocery store. Sometimes we just fall into routines, as Justin Ross Harris claims he did on the morning his son died. Half the week, Harris took his son to daycare, and the other half of the week, his wife took him to daycare and he went straight to work. On the morning his son died, Harris went straight to work (after having breakfast with his son at a Chik-Fil-A), walked up to his office, and didn’t think twice about the fact that his kid was in the backseat of his car.
Harris claims he didn’t even realize his son was in the car at lunchtime when he bought some light bulbs and threw them in his driver’s side door. Harris didn’t discover his son in the backseat until 4:15 that day, about two miles into his drive to a movie theater to catch an early film (22 Jump Street).
When Harris did find his son, according to a witness, he lost it. There’s no audio of Harris’ wailing cries of agony and despair, but just to make us feel horrible, Bill Rankin played the 911 call of an Arkansas judge who discovered that he’d accidentally left his son in a hot car. Hearing a man realize that he accidentally killed his son? It’s basically the worst sound ever.
In spite of the immediate public outcry against Harris, my first thought was “That poor, poor bastard. He’s going to have to live with that guilt and pain for the rest of his life.” There’s no way, in my mind, that anyone would do that to a child on purpose.
Then Rankin begins to reveal some of the other evidence, like the fact that Harris is a horrible human being. He was cheating on his wife. He was sleeping with prostitutes. He was sexting, and not just a little. There were something like 40,000 sexts on his phone, and 5,000 Whisper app messages (and lots of photos of his junk). While he was at the Chik-Fil-A with his son, he was sexting with an underage girl. Over the course of the day his son died, Harris sexted with six women.
OK, so he’s a terrible human being, but not terrible enough to leave his son to die in the hot sun, right? The affairs and the sexting were probably why he accidentally left his son in the car because his mind was preoccupied with all the sexting.
Maybe, but then it’s revealed that he’d mentioned in many of his sexts that parenting was a drag, and that his son kept him from doing the things he apparently preferred to do (like have sex with strangers). He’d mentioned in his sexts that he’d leave his wife if not for his son. He’d also been visiting the childfree subreddit (for advocates of a child-free existence), and maybe most damaging of all was the fact that both he and his wife had researched on the Internet car deaths and how they occur.
All of which is to say, there’s at least a very good reason that Harris was charged with malice murder in his son’s death. It remains to be seen, however, whether he should be convicted, and that’s the very issue that this season of Breakdown will take up (and it appears that it may coincide with the trial).
At this point, I really don’t know, and that’s what makes this season compelling. How 22-month-old Cooper died, however, also makes it a very hard podcast to hear.
If you can stomach it, here’s a link to the first episode.