Update: What you need to know about the Georgia dad charged with hot car death

Jul 3, 2014 at 12:00 p.m. ET
Image: Cobb County

When 22-month-old Cooper Mills Harris died June 18, media outlets nationwide covered the heartbreaking story of a father who accidentally left his son in a closed car in the broiling Atlanta sun for 7 hours while he went to work.

But public sympathy began to ebb when law enforcement indicated perhaps there was more to the story. Below is a timeline of what we know now, followed by an overview of the legal questions facing Cooper's father, Justin Harris, 33, who is being held in jail without bond.

The parents

Justin Ross Harris — The father has been charged with felony murder and cruelty to a child. Harris and his wife, Leanna, live in Marietta, Georgia, and Justin works at Home Depot corporate headquarters in Atlanta. He has been jailed without bond since his arrest on June 18 and will go before the magistrate on Thursday, July 3, for a probable cause hearing.

Leanna Harris — Cooper's mother and Harris' wife. In a warrant made public before Cooper's funeral, Leanna told police she had done internet searches about how hot it would have to be in a car for a child to succumb and die. She publicly voiced support for her husband during Cooper's funeral.

Timeline of events

  1. On the morning of Wednesday, June 18, Justin Harris took Cooper for breakfast at a local Chik-fil-A before securing his son in a rear-facing child seat in the middle of the back seat of his Hyundai Tucson SUV.
  2. Harris drove to Home Depot corporate headquarters, about a half mile away from where they ate breakfast, where Harris works as a web designer, as reported by CNN.
  3. Instead of removing Cooper from the car and dropping him off at the company's on-site day care, Harris left Cooper in the car and walked into the building.
  4. Police report that during Harris' lunch break, he returned to his car and opened the driver's side door to put something inside.
  5. At approximately 4:16 p.m., the 33-year-old father got in his car and drove away.
  6. The distance between Home Depot corporate headquarters and the Akers Mill Square shopping mall, where Harris stopped next, is just over three miles, or six minutes of travel time.
  7. The Cobb County police department reported that officers in the area of Akers Mill Square shopping center saw a crowd gathered around a blue Hyundai Tucson.
  8. "When officers began to investigate, they observed a child lying on the ground," the police report states. "As officers began to render medical treatment to the 22-month-old male child, it was discovered that he was deceased after apparently being left unattended in his car seat inside the vehicle."
  9. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports: “'Oh my god what have I done,' Harris screamed, according to witnesses. Harris placed the boy on the parking lot pavement and began to administer CPR on him as witnesses gathered and also tried to help revive Cooper."
  10. “When someone came to assist Harris he stopped providing medical attention to the child and started making calls on his cell phone,” the affidavits state.
  11. A distraught Harris was not cooperative with police, who handcuffed the father and put him in the back of a patrol car. Harris was taken to Cobb police headquarters for questioning, and within about five hours was arrested and charged with felony murder and child cruelty.
  12. While detectives were questioning Harris, and later his wife, other investigators were examining the SUV, the family’s condo near Marietta, a laptop and a cell phone, according to the search warrant applications. The condo was also searched for papers, writings, documents, photographs and any other evidence related to the investigation, according to police.
  13. Within five hours of the discovery of Cooper's body, Justin Harris was arrested.

The investigation

While shock and sorrow rippled through the community and then nationwide, the tide of public support turned quickly when the magistrate court of Cobb County released an affidavit reporting that when investigators interviewed Justin Harris, "he stated that he recently researched, through the internet, child deaths inside vehicles and what temperature it needs to be for that to occur. Justin stated that he was fearful this could happen."

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that search warrant affidavits show “Leanna Harris, the child’s mother, was also questioned regarding the incident and made similar statements regarding researching in car deaths and how it occurs." To date, law enforcement has not released the timing of either parent's online searches about car deaths.

"The chain of events that occurred in this case does not point toward simple negligence and evidence will be presented to support this allegation," Cobb County police chief John R. Houser said in a statement. "In fairness to everyone involved in this emotional case, I would ask that you not make conclusions based on rumor or suspicions and let our judicial system work as it is designed."

Public response

Soon after news of Cooper's death spread, a Change.org petition was started, calling on authorities to drop the charges. That petition is now closed. A Facebook page titled "Justin Ross Harris Is Guilty" has only 30 likes.

In Cooper's obituary, published in the Tuscaloosa News, the family requested donations in Cooper's name to the Homer Fund, which is Home Depot's nonprofit employee support foundation.

"In lieu of flowers, the family would like to give back to a very special fund that has chosen to support us during this tragic time. Please make donations to The Homer Fund."

The guest log for Cooper's obituary had more than 240 entries at press time, including comments from people nationwide sharing condolences and often referring only to Cooper's mother "and family."

Wife voices support for husband at funeral

Multiple media outlets reported from Cooper's funeral, where Leanna Harris spoke out in support of her husband. "Am I angry with Ross?" Leanna Harris told attendees. "Absolutely not. It has never crossed my mind. Ross is and was and will be, if we have more children, a wonderful father. Ross is a wonderful daddy and leader for our household. Cooper meant the world to him."

Media reports share that while Harris remained in the Cobb County jail and could not attend the funeral, he called in and spoke to the auditorium on speakerphone. "Thank you for everything you've done for my boy," he said. "Good life... [inaudible] No words to say. Just horrible... [inaudible] I'm just sorry I can't be there." He told everyone he loved them and started crying again.


Determining probable cause

Harris is being held without bond at the Cobb County jail after pleading not guilty. He will go before a judge Thursday, July 3, for a probable cause hearing.

Because he's charged with murder, his case will be turned over for grand jury review if the magistrate finds probable cause for that charge to stand.

CNN legal analyst Mark O'Mara, who is also a defense attorney, addresses the issue of simple negligence vs. gross negligence in a column urging readers to withhold judgment until the justice system has had a chance to evaluate the facts.

"Harris probably acted with simple negligence," O'Mara wrote. "If he did, he will deal with having been the cause of his son's death for the rest of his life, but he should not be held criminally liable.

"There is one other possibility to consider. If Harris showed a reckless disregard for the consequences of his actions or a blatant indifference to his legal duties, then he may be guilty of gross negligence. If it is determined that Harris acted in a grossly negligent way, then he should be held criminally responsible.

Updated on July 7, 2014 at 9am

Thursday afternoon's court hearing brought to light chilling facts about the day Cooper Harris died.

  • The judge found probable cause in the two charges against Harris, second-degree cruelty to a child and felony murder.
  • Harris is denied bond.
  • Justin and Leanna Harris had two life insurance policies on Cooper for a total of $27,000.
  • Investigators used a mannequin to show that Cooper's head would have been visible over the top of his rear-facing car seat, which he had grown out of.
  • Harris sent sexually explicit texts to several women, including an underage girl, during the day while Cooper was in his vehicle.
  • Harris' internet history included visits to a child free forum, searches on how to survive in prison, and age of consent laws in Georgia.
  • Both Leanna and Justin Harris acted suspiciously on the day of Cooper's death, making statements that alerted investigators to the possibility something being amiss.

What's next for Justin Ross Harris?

  • Because Harris' judge denied bond, Harris will remain in jail throughout his trial. His next court date hasn't been set.

More about children and car safety

I left my toddler in a hot car
How to prevent kids dying in hot cars
Car seat safety