Justin Ross Harris, the father of a toddler who died after police say he was left in a hot car for about seven hours, weeps as he sits at his bond hearing in Cobb County Magistrate Court, in Marietta, Ga. On Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, a Cobb County grand jury indicted Harris on multiple charges, including malice murder, felony murder and cruelty to children. The malice murder charge indicates that prosecutors believe that Harris intentionally left his son Cooper in the hot car to die.
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Harris faces eight charges total: Malice Murder, Felony Murder (two counts), Cruelty to Children in the First Degree, Cruelty to Children in the Second Degree, Criminal Attempt to Commit a Felony and Dissemination of Harmful Material to Minors (two counts). Harris has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.
If convicted of all charges, Harris could face life in prison. In Georgia, life is 30 years, unless the sentence is life without parole.
A 22-month-old child in Atlanta, Georgia, died after being left in a hot car for more than eight hours.
According to Cobb County police, the father of the toddler was supposed to drop the baby off at daycare, but forgot. The father then drove to work at Home Depot around 9 a.m. Wednesday and left the baby in the car. It wasn’t until the man left work and started driving home that he looked in the backseat and saw the child still strapped in the car seat and unresponsive.
Prosecutors believe the father, Justin Ross Harris, 34, left the child in the backseat intentionally, and have charged Harris with eight felony counts, including malice murder, cruelty to children and criminal attempt to commit a felony.
Some good Samaritans tried to resuscitate the child, Cooper Harris, at the scene but it was too late. Temperatures in Atlanta topped 90 degrees on that Wednesday afternoon. Temperatures inside a hot car could go as high as 130 to 140 degrees in a few hours.
Dale Hamilton, a witness who said he was in the Akers Mill Square shopping center getting lunch that day, said that he saw a man later identified as Justin Ross Harris drive into the parking lot, stop his car straddling two lanes of traffic, jump out and begin CPR on the baby.
“He hopped out of his car. I didn’t know what he was doing at the time,” Hamilton said. “But, he eventually pulled the child out of the car seat. I guess he was trying to un-restrain him. He pulled him out of the car seat, laid him on the ground and was trying to resuscitate him.”
“It is tough, I am not sure how someone could forget they have a child in the backseat,” Hamilton added. “He was constantly saying, “What have I done, what have I done.’”
However, the case has continued to escalate as scandalous details emerged about Harris’ secret life. In the months leading up to the trial Prosecutors have released one bombshell after another about extramarital affairs, incriminating text messages, and sexual communications with other girls.
One of the most damaging messages was sent by Justin Ross Harris himself, just 10 minutes before locking his son in the car. Prosecutors say he responded to a woman’s online post: “I love my son and all,” prosecutors say Harris wrote on the morning of June 18, 2014, “but we both need escapes.”
In the probable cause hearing leading up to the trial, Prosecutors called lead investigator Phil Stoddard, who testified that Harris “sexted” several women, including a then-16-year-old girl, and exchanged nude photos on the day his son died.
According to prosecutors, Harris used the messaging app Kik to communicate with at least six different women that day. The conversations were decidedly sexual, including the exchange of explicit pictures. Stoddard testified that Harris sent photos of his genitals to at least one woman.
Technicians for the prosecution also analyzed Harris’ phone and home and work computers and found that Harris used Google to search “how to survive in prison” and “age of consent in Georgia,” and even watched a video in which a veterinarian demonstrated the deadly temperatures inside a hot car.
Harris also reportedly visited Reddit forums about “people who die” and a forum called Childfree which advocates for decreasing the biomass of the Earth by not having children.
The avalanche of accusations from the prosecution kept coming as investigators alleged that Harris had also visited prostitutes in the weeks before Cooper’s death.
From the charges it is clear that Prosecutors don’t believe Cooper’s death was an accident. Stoddard testified that authorities obtained surveillance video from the parking lot of Harris’s workplace. During lunchtime, on the video, Harris approached his vehicle with a bag of light bulbs he had purchased:
“He opened the driver’s side door and tossed them inside,” Stoddard testified, noting that Harris didn’t appear to glance into the back seat, where Cooper was strapped in.
Harris’ defense attorneys have consistently tried to exclude the scandalous online messages. Attorney Maddox Kilgore asked the court to rule all evidence of Harris’s extramarital affairs as inadmissible:
“In a nutshell, they’re arguing that any explicit sexual communications or acts constitutes evidence of murder,” Kilgore told the judge. “From what we’ve seen, there’s no evidence of him wanting to commit violence, no history of neglect or indifference.”
The defense has lost most of the evidentiary battles over texts and online messages, but they were able to exclude evidence that Harris had two life insurance policies on Cooper, totally $27,000.
Justin Ross Harris, 33: Harris is a native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and a graduate of the University of Alabama. He was a husband and father with no criminal record, and even worked as a 911 dispatcher in Alabama. He moved to Marietta, Georgia, in 2012 to work as an entry level web developer for Home Depot. In an online forum on Reddit, he claimed to make $61,200 per year. According to police reports, Harris left his two-year-old son Cooper strapped into a rear-facing car seat in the middle of the backseat of his 2011 Hyundai Tucson, on a hot Atlanta day for seven hours. Witnesses observed Harris try to unsuccessfully revive Cooper after pulling the boy’s body from the baking car. Prosecutors have painted Harris as a man unhappy and unfaithful in his marriage who wanted an escape. Defense attorneys have called the boy’s death a tragic mistake by a loving father who forgot to drop his son at day care on his way to work. Harris is deaf in his right ear.
Leanna Taylor (Formerly Leanna Harris): The ex-wife of Justin Ross Harris and mother of Cooper Harris. The 30-year-old dietitian met Harris in 2004 after being set up on a blind date. They married in 2006 and moved to Marietta shortly after the birth of their son Cooper. In a filing in Cobb County Superior Court, Leanna Harris quietly filed for divorce, stating that the couple’s once strong bond is now “irretrievably broken.” However, she is still expected to be a key witness for the defense and is expected to testify that she believes her son’s death to be an accident. Prosecutors have added her to their witness list as well. Taylor was initially questioned by police but she was never charged with a crime in this case. There is no spousal privilege because this is a crime involving a child. At the bail hearing Taylor provided a victim’s impact statement: “Ross was a wonderful father and he loved Cooper with all of his heart,” she wrote. “Because I saw how he treated our little boy for 22 months, I know without a doubt he would never have knowingly allowed any harm to come to our son. I want you to know what a loving father he was.” She also adopted a forgiving tone about her husband’s alleged online behavior. “Whatever issues that transpired in our marriage is between God and us, for He will judge those moral sins,” she wrote. “The rush to judgement by the public and the mainstream media has left me with little confidence in our legal system and our society.”
Phil Stoddard: Cobb County police detective and lead investigator for the prosecution. Stoddard has been a key witness in numerous pretrial hearings. He testified at the probable cause hearing and introduced most of the evidence that lead the prosecution to file murder charges against Harris, including incriminating texts messages, nude photos, and surveillance cameras of the Home Depot parking lot. Stoddard joined the Cobb Police Department in 2007 after six years with Atlanta police and had worked in the CCPD’s crimes against persons unit for about seven months when he was assigned to the Harris case. Defense attorneys have suggested that Stoddard wanted a murder conviction against Harris from the beginning, and may have exaggerated evidence to make Harris appear more culpable.
Judge Mary E. Staley: Judge Staley graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts degree from the State University of West Georgia in 1975. She earned her Juris Doctor from the University of Georgia School of Law in 1978. After graduating from law school, Judge Staley served as an Assistant District Attorney for the Cobb Judicial Circuit from 1978-1982. She was elected Magistrate Judge of Cobb County in 1982, and then elected State Court Judge, Division I in 1984. She was elected Judge of the Superior Court of Cobb County in 1992, and served as Chief Judge from 2005-2006. She is currently the presiding judge for the Cobb County Mental Health Court.
Vic Reynolds: Cobb County District Attorney: Vic Reynolds was born and raised in Rome, Ga., and is a graduate of Floyd County public schools. In 1979 he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice from Georgia Southern University, in Statesboro. After graduating, Vic returned to Rome, where he was in law enforcement for four years. In 1986, Vic graduated from law school at Georgia State University and began prosecuting felony cases as an assistant district attorney in Fulton and Cobb counties. He was a prosecutor in Cobb when he was appointed as Chief Magistrate in 1994.
Chuck Boring: Senior Assistant District Attorney: Charles “Chuck” P. Boring is an Assistant District Attorney supervising the Cobb Judicial Circuit (Cobb County, GA) D.A. Office’s Special Victims Unit. He is a graduate of Georgia State University College of Law. He has been a prosecutor since 2000 and has prosecuted a variety of crimes including murder, rape, physical and sexual abuse of children, internet facilitated crimes against children, and human trafficking cases.
Jesse Evans: Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney: Jesse is a native of Cobb County. He earned his undergraduate and law degrees at Mercer University and has spent his entire career in criminal prosecution. He joined the Cobb District Attorney’s Office as an Assistant District Attorney in 2001, and in 2006 became the Major Crimes/Homicide prosecutor. In 2008, he was elevated to Deputy Chief ADA. In addition to practicing law, he is an instructor at lawenforcement training academies and regularly gives presentations for fellow prosecutors through the Prosecuting Attorney’s Council.
H. Maddox Kilgore: Defense Attorney: Maddox began his legal career serving as a law clerk for the former Cobb County Superior Court Judge and current Georgia Supreme Court Justice P. Harris Hines. As a law clerk on the Georgia Supreme Court, Maddox honed his craft of legal writing at the highest level. As an advocate, Maddox cut his teeth as an Assistant Attorney General for five years, where he argued habeas corpus cases across the State of Georgia and represented the State in murder cases before the Supreme Court of Georgia. He then served as an Assistant District Attorney in the Cobb Judicial Circuit for six years where he successfully tried dozens of felony jury trials, including defendants charged with murder, armed robbery, child cruelty, and trafficking narcotics.
Carlos J. Rodriguez: Defense Attorney: Carlos contributes his intelligence, talent, and skill defending those charged with misdemeanor and felony offenses to the Atlanta-area criminal defense firm of Kilgore & Rodriguez. He has investigated, prepared, and successfully defended those accused of murder, aggravated assault, possession & the sale drugs, DUI, and many other criminal cases.
Bryan Lumpkin: Defense Attorney: I am a seasoned trial lawyer who has taken over 80 felony jury trials to verdict. In addition, I have handled well over 100 bench trials, filed motions and represented clients at hundreds of contested hearings. I am admitted to practice before all Georgia state courts and am a member of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the Cobb County Bar Association.
Leonard Madden: A witness in the parking lot where Harris stopped and pulled Cooper’s body out of the car. Madden testified at a preliminary hearing on July 3, 2014. “When I got closer, I thought it was a doll. And about three or four feet away, I noticed it was the body of a toddler. Right then my heart dropped because I saw this precious boy laying there lifeless” Madden said. “The father, Mr. Ross, had just given his child CPR and about two other people came near to assist. As I got closer, you could just hear his cries and his desperate for his son to be revived. He was saying, ‘Oh my god, oh my god. My son is dead. Oh my god, my son is dead.’ It sounded as if he was saying it out of hurt and disappointment, desperation. He was yelling, he was hollering, he was screaming.” Madden testified that he believed Harris’ reaction was “organic” and “genuine” and said that he “wept and mourned his son [Cooper] and I’ve never even met him.” Madden also admitted that he had watched media coverage before giving his testimony, and that it took police 20-30 minutes to arrives on the scene while prosecutors have said police arrived in only a few minutes.
Randy Michael Baygents: Justin Ross Harris’ brother. Baygents testified at a preliminary hearing on July 3, 2014. He was emotional on the stand and said Harris “was a loving father.” With tears in his eyes, Baygents said that “[Harris] loved his son very much. We went on family vacations together and he was a good dad.” On cross-examination Baygents said he had no knowledge about Harris sexting with underage girls.
James Alex Hall: Friend and colleague of Justin Ross Harris. Hall testified at a preliminary hearing on July 3, 2014. They went to college together, own a business together, and work together at Home Depot. Hall went to lunch with Harris the day Cooper died, and actually dropped Harris off at his car after lunch before returning to the office so that Harris could drop off lightbulbs they had purchased. “I drove as close as you would reasonably to drop somebody off at their car,” Hall said. When asked how Harris was acting that day: “I wouldn’t say abnormal in any way. I’d say normal as you can be. Nothing stuck out, nothing was weird.” Hall testified that Harris loved his son very much and that “his son was very important to him.” On cross-examination prosecutors asked if Hall knew that Harris was “sexting” women during the day. When he responded “no”, prosecutors said “You don’t know everything about Mr. Harris, do you?” Hall shrugged.
Winston Milling: Friend of Justin Ross Harris who also went to lunch with Harris the day his son Cooper died. Milling testified at a preliminary hearing on July 3, 2014. “[Harris] loved showing Cooper off to everybody. He liked picking him up, bringing him around. He was always happy, Cooper was always smiling,” Milling said. He also confirmed the defense claim that Harris was deaf in his right ear. “I always have to go to the other side of his head to talk to him.” Milling said everything seemed normal while they were at lunch that day.
Jury selection begins on April 11 in the case against Justin Ross Harris, the Georgia father accused of murder after his 22-month-old son, Cooper, died in a hot car. Harris also faces separate charges related to alleged lewd text messages sent to minors.
Prosecutors will argue that Harris purposefully left his young son in the backseat of his car throughout his seven-hour shift at work, and the child perished in the suffocating heat. Further, they will attempt to present evidence showing that on the same day, Harris was texting pornographic pictures to women, including one minor.
The challenge for prosecutors will be proving that Harris purposefully left his son in the car to kill him. A conviction for first degree murder requires premeditation, deliberation and malice. Lawyers for Cobb County will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Harris wanted to kill the child and choose to do so by leaving him to suffocate in the car. Proving that theory will be difficult without a confession, but prosecutors may attempt to bring in evidence that Harris allegedly searched online how hot a car needs to be to kill a child – evidence they will argue points to pre-planning.
Harris’s lawyers, meanwhile, will argue that it was a tragic accident. Their biggest job will be to drum up sympathy for the defendant and present him as a loving father who made a terrible mistake. Their job will be extremely difficult with the new sexting charges, which make him look lewd and irresponsible at best, callous and predatory at worst.
Attorneys for the defendant argued strenuously to have the sexting charges severed from the murder charges, saying that it was not related conduct. The court decided to keep the case together, allowing the prosecution to bring into evidence texts like “I love my son and all but we both need escapes,” which Harris allegedly sent to a woman moments before he locked his son in the car.
Harris’s lawyers will argue that evidence of adultery is not the same as evidence of premeditated murder. While this is true – a sext, no matter how distasteful, is not a murder confession – it will be difficult for a jury to look with sympathy on a man who was allegedly texting pictures of underage girls while his son suffocated.
The star witness will be Harris’s former wife, Leanna Harris. If she testifies that Harris had ever told her he thought about killing their son, or if she thought that he was capable of it, he will be sunk. However, if she testifies that he was a loving father who was occasionally forgetful, he may have a chance of a lesser included offense conviction or even an acquittal on the homicide charges. Leanna’s testimony is expected to be emotional and raw and will likely have an enormous impact on the jury.
A lesser included offense conviction is sometimes used in murder cases where the defendant’s criminal intent is not clear. If the jury does not find the malice, premeditation and deliberation necessary for a first degree murder conviction, they can find Harris guilty of second degree murder (commonly called “heat of passion murder,” in which the killing was not premeditated but was distinctly likely based on the danger of the defendant’s conduct).
In Harris’s case, he is also charged with a variety of offenses that fall under the cruelty to children statutes, all of which he can be convicted of if prosecutors fail to prove the murder charges beyond a reasonable doubt.
Prosecutors are not pursuing the death penalty against Harris. If he is convicted of first degree murder, he will be facing life in prison. A second degree murder conviction could also mean life in prison but would likely be less time.
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