The Electronic Footprints of the Mind: Justin Ross Harris, Search History, and Mens Rea

POST WRITTEN BY: Jake B. Sher (’16), Pace Law School

ImageThe District Attorneys of the Information Age have a new tool at their disposal: the internet search histories of their defendants. Used correctly, this tool can grant unprecedented insight into an individual’s mental state regarding an alleged crime. The most recent debate on the issue involves Justin Ross Harris, whose high-profile case about his son’s death by exposure initially suggested a negligent mens rea at best. Investigators got a hold of the internet search history and cell phone data, finding evidence that Harris was communicating with several women while his son was still alive in the vehicle, and allegedly had looked at websites that advocated against having children. Harris’ acts have subjected him to murder charges.

The use of internet search history to secure a conviction is undoubtedly a powerful tool, and its use is nothing new. For instance, Melanie McGuire’s searches for “how to purchase guns?” and “how to commit murder;” Steven Zirko’s extensive search history, or Jared Lee Loughner’s “assassin” research.

Taken in context, internet searches can give important insights into the mind of the individual conducting the search. Taken out of context, however, a person’s internet search history may result in a wrongful conviction. The Eastern District of Wisconsin granted a prisoner’s habeas corpus petition, releasing him from a life sentence for his wife’s murder where his alleged internet search history for “ethelyne glycol poisoning” occurred on the morning of his wife’s death.  The District Court cast doubt on the reliability of the search history for purposes of determining intent, particularly in the context of letters and reports to police suggesting Mrs. Jensen’s concerns about his internet search history. The District Court determined that the admission of such evidence to the exclusion of evidence suggesting Mrs. Jensen was suicidal and had access to Mr. Jensen’s computer at the time that the internet search occurred constituted a violation of the defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights:

… viewed in isolation, the State’s computer evidence against Jensen was quite convincing. But that was not the only evidence the jury heard about the computer. The jury also heard Jensen’s statement to one of the investigators in which he denied any knowledge of the searches for poison and claimed that Julie also used the computer and accessed the internet, information that was confirmed by one of Julie’s friends … Jensen told the investigator that the computer was not password protected and that Julie entered information on a financial program called Quicken and was interested in medical information. … The defense pointed out evidence in the internet history of a search for “suicide” on November 10, 2008, which was also the first day on which the word ethylene glycol appears in the internet history.

Jensen v. Schwochert, No. 11-C-00803, 2013 WL 6708767, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 177420  (E.D. Wis. Dec. 18, 2013). (Court’s Official Copy)

Searches by individuals online create inadvertent communication between the searching individual and the corporation owning and operating the search engine. It is important to note that the evidence unearthed from internet data may provide just enough information to obfuscate the truth. As Orin S. Kerr stated with regards to digital evidence,

communications normally will not indicate who or what sent or received them, or the context in which they were sent or received.

While internet search histories are helpful tools for obtaining circumstantial evidence regarding the individual’s state of mind conducting the search, they are imperfect vehicles in that process; courts must balance their admission against the Constitutional Rights of the individual conducting the search. In our continued pursuit of the equitable administration of justice in the Internet Age, the words of Justice Cardozo remain resonant:

When the risk of confusion is so great as to upset the balance of advantage, the evidence goes out.

Shepard v. United States, 290 U.S. 96, 104 (1933).

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