URBANA — Jurors in U.S. District Court in Urbana will decide Thursday if a Tennessee man who spent weeks electronically courting a Champaign middle school girl had the intent to have sex with her.
Assistant Public Defender John Taylor told the jury hearing the charges against Joseph Cain Harrison, 36, of LaVergne, Tenn., a suburb of Nashville, that they had a "narrow legal issue" to decide.
"We now have two worlds — the real world and the virtual world — where children and adults are able to play out fantasies. Did the virtual world in which Joseph and (the girl) exchanged e-mails and photos bleed over into the real world? Was his intent to go to Champaign and have sex?" Taylor asked in his opening statement.
For two days, Assistant U.S. Attorney Elly Peirson put on evidence to suggest that was exactly what Harrison had in mind. Harrison chose not to testify.
Jurors on Tuesday heard from the then-12-year-old girl about how she met Harrison through an online gaming site in the late summer of 2011 and eventually shared her phone number with him, thinking he was 13 and later believing he was 18.
Harrison made at least three trips to Champaign in January 2012 to meet her in person. On Jan. 7 and 8, he stayed overnight at a hotel and followed the girl and her family as they ran errands on a Sunday to Sam's Club and a County Market store. Police obtained video from those places showing Harrison there.
The girl testified that on Jan. 13 and 17, he picked her up from Jefferson Middle School and drove her home, "making out" with her while her parents were at work.
From November 24, 2011, to Jan., 13, 2012, Harrison and the girl exchanged in excess of 20,000 text messages, according to Champaign police Detective Patrick Simons, who has been specially trained in retrieving data from computers and cellphones.
Simons said most of the text messages had been deleted from Harrison's phone after the girl's mother contacted police on Jan. 18, 2012, to report the possibly inappropriate relationship. Simons retrieved them from Harrison's computer once police identified him and found where he was living.
The detective called Harrison an "intermediate to advanced" computer user who used interactive sites to send love letters to the girl. Besides the texts, Simons found sites on Harrison's computer that he had bookmarked, including "How to Become A Hacker," and a subscription site that specializes in teenage girls.
Peirson also had Champaign police Detective Pat Funkhouser testify about the nature of the texts, which he said showed a definite pattern of "grooming" on the part of Harrison. He defined grooming as "establishing an emotional connection with a child to facilitate sexual abuse."
Funkhouser, who handles many child sex abuse investigations, cited as examples showering the child with compliments, keeping the child isolated from friends, and then gradually moving into sexual contact that is inappropriate for the child's age.
Funkhouser testified that the texts between Harrison and the girl went from being playful to far more sexually explicit as the weeks went on.
"As it develops, she becomes more compliant," he said.
The jury saw many of the texts ranging from the seemingly innocent ones that came early from Harrison to far more lewd and lascivious ones that came after the two exchanged "vows" committing to each other around Christmas.
"The movement toward sexting and sexual activity is gradual but consistent," Funkhouser observed.
Funkhouser said he learned that Harrison was a registered sex offender who was married when he first began his online relationship with the girl. He later became separated from his wife, the detective said.
The charges against Harrison are enticement of a minor, traveling with the intent to engage in illicit sexual conduct with a minor, and doing those things at a time when he was a registered sex offender.
Closing arguments are expected Thursday morning.