Dead Boy’s Devoted Daddy

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Jusitn Harris

 

Peter was a friend of my husband.  They were both educators. They coached soccer together for several years. So imagine my shock when checking the cop logs at the Oregon State Police office one morning I came across Peter’s name.

He’d been issued a ticket for a felony violation. A sex act with a minor. I obtained the details from a reluctant Lieutenant. He knew Peter, too.

Seems an officer happened upon Peter at a beach down along the Columbia River. There was a used condom and a 14-year-old girl. The girl was from the town in which I now live. Peter met her online, in one of those chat rooms. He swore she told him she was 18. She swore she told him she was 18.

One look at the victim in the courtroom and I knew that nobody, especially not someone who worked as an educator would ever mistake her for being 18. She looked every bit like the pudgy pubescent girl she was.

Contrast that to Peter’s wife. Not drop-dead gorgeous, but an attractive, slender woman who had a pleasing smile and engaging personality. A nurse who was also well-liked, well-respected.

And then there was their daughter to consider. She was close in age to the victim. A standout soccer player herself.

“Think of my family,” Peter pleaded when I called to inform him that the newspaper would be running a story about his violation, and to ask if he had any response.

“That’s exactly what you should have been doing,” I said.

Peter got off easy. He should have been charged with statutory rape. If he had not been so well-regarded in the community prior, he probably would have been. But you know how these things go in a small town. Peter claimed he had never actually had sex with the girl. He had been unable to “perform”, he said. The victim supported his claim.

He did lose his teaching license. He now lives in North Carolina. I don’t know if he and his wife are still together, but she rallied beside her man, the way some women do.

I learned a lot about people from that one case. I learned that when someone we identify with commits a wrongdoing we will circle the wagons. Educators who I had known for years treated me as if I had  been the perpetrator.

They quit speaking to me. They wrote me nasty emails. They called the editor at the paper and protested. They claimed we went looking for salacious news stories to discredit the respectable.

They did not at any point rally around the victim.

Instead they defended their peer.

I was honestly gob-smacked by their behavior. Working the cop beat taught me a lot of things about human nature. Mostly it taught me not to be surprised by the level of deviancy to which people, even good people, will stumble.

Or dive.

So when the news broke that a loving, devoted father had been arrested for leaving his toddler son in a vehicle on a hot Georgia day, I knew enough to not immediately suspect the cops of ill-will. I knew there was probably something the cops knew that the rest of us didn’t.

Children do die in hot cars nearly every summer. In 2013, forty-four children died of heatstrokes after being left in hot cars. It’s a tragedy. A terrible, terrible accident that devastates families. Investigations are conducted in these cases, and unless a parent has a history of neglect, or abuse, rarely are arrests made. The general consensus among law enforcement and the courts being that any parent who truly accidentally causes the death of a child in this manner will spend a lifetime suffering. That does not appear to be the case with the dad from Georgia.

Justin Ross Harris, 33, of Marietta, who is charged with murder, was in an unhappy marriage and wanted a “child-free life,” said Cobb County Det. Phil Stoddard.

Harris had $25,000 worth of life insurance out on his son. There had been searches on computers he had access to, inquiring about how long it took for a pet to die in a hot car. Harris took his son to breakfast then drove less than a mile to work at Home Depot, then insisted that he “forgot’ to take his son to the daycare, leaving the child instead to suffocate to death.

Now we learn that Harris had been sexting with several women the day 22-month-old Cooper died. Exchanging nude photos  with several women, including a 17-year old girl.

When law enforcement denied Harris the privilege of attending his son’s funeral, his home church supported him. An online protest was signed by 12,000 petitioners.

At Cooper’s funeral, a pastor rebuked the courts for being impersonal, for keeping Harris in jail, denying him bond and the ability to attend his son’s funeral. A children’s pastor testified that Harris was a loving, devoted father.  Not surprisingly, Harris’s church community rose up in defense of him. His wife said she wasn’t angry at God for letting her son die.

Good to know.

God is usually the last one to get an “out” anytime there’s a tragedy. Or, it appears in Cooper’s case, a murder.

All this leaves me wondering, is it really compassion for the victim that compels us to rise up in defense of the all-too-often-guilty, or is it simply more of our usual bent toward self-righteous indignation?

About Karen Spears Zacharias

Author. Speaker. Journalism Instructor. Four kids. Three dogs. One grandson.


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