Dad Charged With Son's Hot Car Death Could Face Death Penalty

Justin Ross Harris was sexting while son died, detective said.

July 3, 2014, 4:55 PM

— -- The Georgia dad charged with killing his toddler son by leaving the boy in a hot car all day could face the death penalty, a judge said Thursday at a court hearing.

Justin Ross Harris, 33, was denied bond and faces child cruelty and felony murder charges after he said he forgot his 22-month old son in his SUV while he was at work at Home Depot.

A detective said Harris spent part of the day while his son was dying in the overheated car sending explicit messages and photos to "multiple women." One of the females Harris sexted was 17, the detective said.

The prosecutor said that he brought up the sexting during the probable cause hearing because it "goes to the state of mind" of the defendant.

"He wanted to live a child free life," the prosecutor said.

At the end of the three hour hearing Judge Frank R. Cox denied bond for Harris because "this is a possible death penalty case."

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Cobb County Police Department Detective Phil Stoddard told the court that before little Cooper Harris died, his father took him to a Chik-fil-A restaurant for breakfast and while buckling the boy back into his car seat, "Cooper gives him a kiss and he [Harris] gave him a kiss back."

Harris sat impassively in an orange jail jumpsuit until the end of the hearing when he began to cry. He has insisted he forgot his son was in the car and that the boy's death was an accident.

Stoddard testified that before the boy died, Harris had visited the website Reddit to search for articles on life without children, and viewed videos on Reddit that showed people dying -- by suicide or execution, in some cases. Harris had also twice viewed a video that shows the painful death of animals left in hot cars, and had searched for how to survive in prison, according to searches of his laptop, Stoddard said.

The detective said both Harris and his wife, Leanna Harris, seemed unemotional after learning of their son's death. Harris never called 911 after finding the boy unresponsive in his SUV on June 18, Stoddard said.

The detective told the court that Cooper suffered a "painful death." He said the temperature that day was around 88 degrees.

But Harris told his wife the boy "looked peaceful ... his eyes and his mouth were closed," Stoddard recalled of the pair meeting at the police station. The detective added under questioning, however, that photos taken by police show that the boy's eyes and mouth were not closed.

At one point, Harris told his wife: "I dreaded how he would look," according to Stoddard's testimony.

And Leanna Harris asked her husband, "Did you say too much?" during police questioning, Stoddard said.

The detective also raised some points about the wife's behavior in his testimony. He said that employees at the day care center said that when she went to pick up her son and was told her husband hadn't drop off Cooper that morning, she said moments later, "Ross must have left him in the car."

The officer also said that he clearly heard a phone call between Leanna Harris and her mother in which Cooper's grandmother was distraught over the news of the boy's death and asked her daughter, "Why aren't you crying?" Leanna Harris replied, "I must be in shock," Stoddard said.

There were also marks on Cooper's face and abrasions on the back of his head, the officer said.

Justin Ross Harris Had a "Whole Second Life," Detective Said

Harris and his wife had two insurance policies on their son, one worth $2,000 through Home Depot, where Harris worked, and a second policy worth $25,000 the couple took out in November 2012, Stoddard said.

Police noticed a "foul stench or odor" coming from the vehicle and hour and a half after Cooper was removed, Stoddard said, suggesting Harris would have also realized the smell.

"It smelled like decomposition, or death," Stoddard said.

When asked if thought that Harris was a flight risk, the detective said he did think Harris was a flight risk in part because "he has a whole second life."

Witnesses who testified on Harris' behalf painted him as a loving dad.

Leonard Madden, who had lunch near the parking lot where Harris pulled in after he said he realized his son was dead and in the back of his SUV, said his reaction to finding the boy was "definitely genuine."

Madden contradicted the detective's testimony that Harris never shed a tear.

"He was saying 'Oh my God, oh my God, my son is dead," Madden said. "He was crying, he was sobbing."

Another witness, James Alex Hall, Harris' coworker and friend from college, said he planned to go to the movies with his pal the day Cooper died. Nothing was unusual about Harris' behavior that day, Hall said in court.

"He said he loved his son all the time," Hall added. "He said his son was very important to him."

Hall said he, Harris and another friend had lunch that day at Publix. After eating, Hall dropped Harris off near his car so he could drop off some light bulbs he had purchased.

Harris' attorney Maddox Kilgore maintains that his client didn't look toward the backseat when he went back to his SUV, and had no idea his dead son was in the car.

"If that was the case, why in the world would he bring his colleagues right up to the car? It makes no sense at all," Kilgore said in his closing argument. "Why would he take his closest friends to a crime scene? It makes sense if you realize that he didn't know."

As for the sexting, Kilgore said the prosecution only brought that up to "publicly shame" Harris.

Harris' brother, Randy Michael Baygents Jr., a police sergeant in Alabama, was also in court to vouch for him.

"He was a loving father, he loved his son very much," Baygents said. "We went on family vacations together. He was a good dad."

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