Murder and child cruelty charges against a father whose son died after being left in a car will go to a grand jury after a Cobb County judge found probable cause for the charges Thursday.
Justin Ross Harris messaged six women, sending and receiving explicit texts — some including nude images — from work while his 22-month-old was dying in a hot car, a detective testified in the hearing.
Harris’ attorney repeatedly objected to Cobb County, Georgia, police Detective Phil Stoddard’s testimony regarding Harris sexting the women — one of whom was 17 — but the judge allowed it because it was a probable cause hearing.
In addition to the charges he faces in connection with his son’s death, Harris may be charged with felony sexual exploitation of a minor and misdemeanor illegal contact with a minor, Stoddard said.
A prosecutor insisted that the testimony helped portray the defendant’s state of mind and spoke to the negligence angle and helped establish motive, as his wife told police she and Harris were having “intimacy problems,” according to the detective.
Police say Harris, 33, left his toddler, Cooper, strapped into a car seat under a baking sun for seven hours while he went to work. Records show that the mercury topped 92 on June 18, and police say the temperature was 88 degrees when the boy was pronounced dead in a parking lot not far from his father’s workplace.
Stoddard also recounted witnesses telling police Harris was acting erratically when he pulled into a shopping center asking for assistance with his son.
Witnesses told police they heard “squealing tires, and the vehicle came to a stop,” Stoddard testified. Harris exited the vehicle yelling, “Oh, my God, what have I done?” Stoddard said.
The 33-year-old father then stood there with a blank look on his face, the detective said. When a witness told Harris his son needed CPR, Harris went to the other side of his vehicle and made a phone call, apparently to tell someone his son was dead, a witness told police, according to Stoddard.
Harris never called 911, and when an officer told him to get off his phone, he refused and even said, “F*** you” before an officer took his phone and handcuffed him, the detective said.
Witness Leonard Madden said he heard Harris curse at an officer and tell her to “shut up” before two officers approached him “aggressively” and handcuffed him.
Madden didn’t detect anything suspicious in Harris’ behavior, he testified. He and an acquaintance were leaving a restaurant when they noticed a commotion and approached within 3 or 4 feet of a clearly distraught Harris.
“He was crying. He was hollering,” Madden testified, recounting the father saying, “Oh, my God! Oh, my God, my son is dead!”
“I felt his pain; I even wept,” he said.
According to Stoddard, Harris later made statements that police felt were strange, including “I can’t believe this is happening to me” and “I’ll be charged with a felony.” Harris also talked about losing his job, he said.
The detective alleged that Harris told police he couldn’t reach anyone on his telephone, but phone records show that Harris made three calls, and one between him and his employer lasted six minutes, Stoddard said.
Meanwhile, when the boy’s mother, Leanna Harris, arrived at a day care center to pick the boy up, employees there told her Cooper had never been dropped off, the detective said.
“Ross must have left him in the car,” she replied, according to Stoddard. Witnesses said they tried to tell her many other things could have happened, but Leanna Harris insisted that Ross Harris must have left him in the car, Stoddard said.
The detective also said that when Ross and Leanna Harris were in an interview room, Ross Harris told his wife that Cooper looked “peaceful” and his eyes were closed when he was removed from the vehicle.
He told his wife, “I dreaded how he would look,” Stoddard said, adding that the boy’s eyes and mouth were not closed when he was taken out of the SUV.
Ross Harris was scheduled to meet friends for a 5 p.m. movie, “22 Jump Street,” Stoddard said, but he told them he’d be late. He left work at 4:16 p.m., and it would have taken him about 10 minutes to get to the theater, the detective said.
James Alex Hall, who worked with Ross Harris and had run a Web development company with him for the past two or three months, said Harris didn’t act out of the ordinary on the day his son died.
“I would say normal as you could be. Nothing stuck out. Nothing was weird,” Hall said.
When Harris didn’t show up 30 minutes into the movie, Hall stepped outside to contact him. Harris didn’t respond to texts, and phone calls went straight to his voicemail, Hall said.
Asked whether Harris was a guy who talked about how life might be without a child, Hall said he was the opposite: the kind of dad who talked about his kid to the point that people were tired of hearing about it.
“He said he loved his son all the time,” Hall said.
Another friend, Winston Rowell Milling, said he and his wife had joined Ross and Leanna Harris for festivals, picnics, hiking on Kennesaw Mountain and other family events, and both parents seemed to have a loving relationship with Cooper.
“He loved showing Cooper off to everybody,” Milling said. “He was always happy. Cooper was always smiling.”
On cross-examination, a prosecutor asked Hall whether he was aware of allegations that Ross Harris had been sexting various women. Hall replied no and conceded that, if that were true, he didn’t know everything about his friend.
Stoddard testified that messages between the Harrises indicate that the two were having financial problems. Ross Harris had recently been passed over for a promotion, and the couple had two insurance policies on Cooper, one for $2,000 and one for $25,000, Stoddard said.
The detective further told the court that he felt Ross Harris was a flight risk because he had law enforcement experience and no family in Georgia. Stoddard also expressed concern that Ross Harris had a “second life he’s living, with alternate personalities and alternate personas.”
Dozens of reporters and spectators showed up before the hearing began. They filled the courtroom, with about 20 people left to stand. Leanna Harris held another woman’s hand and appeared emotional when her husband was brought into the courtroom in an orange prison jumpsuit.
Defense attorney H. Maddox Kilgore said after several witnesses testified that he didn’t feel anything presented at Thursday’s hearing indicated that Ross Harris intentionally left Cooper in the car, which would be key to finding him guilty on the charges.
“It’s not even criminal negligence enough to support a misdemeanor,” he told the judge, asking the judge to dismiss the warrant. “Ross pulled out of a Chick-fil-A, and his mind went elsewhere. It’s easy to get distracted when you get behind the wheel. Everyone does it.”
Kilgore said he himself had forgotten boxed-up leftovers, a comparison on which the prosecution seized. Someone might remember that they left spaghetti in the car after 30 minutes, said Assistant District Attorney Chuck Boring.
But Ross Harris not only forgot his child, he got an e-mail from his son’s day care during the day and walked out to the vehicle to place light bulbs inside, never once remembering Cooper, the prosecutor said.
“I think it’s remarkable he didn’t stick his head in that car,” Boring said. “He knew what he was going to find.”
Harris, who is being held without bail, has pleaded not guilty.
When news of the boy’s death broke, it was cast as a tragic mistake by an absentminded father. Police later indicated that evidence pointed to something more sinister and that some of the father’s statements to first responders “were not making sense,” said Sgt. Dana Pierce of the Cobb County Police Department.
According to a criminal warrant, Ross Harris placed Cooper into a rear-facing child restraint in the backseat of his Hyundai Tucson after eating breakfast at a fast-food restaurant.
The Web developer then drove to his workplace, a Home Depot corporate office about a half-mile away, according to the warrant. Normally, Harris would drop Cooper off at an on-site day care there.
The father returned to the SUV during his lunch break, opening the driver’s side door “to place an object into the vehicle,” the warrant states.
In what might be a harbinger, the defense repeatedly asked witnesses about being deaf in one ear, perhaps indicating that Ross Harris might not have heard his child in the back seat when he got out of the car and when he returned to it.
Initially, police said Ross Harris had apparently forgotten that the boy was in the backseat and didn’t remember until after he left work, at which point he pulled into a parking lot asking for assistance and wailing, “What have I done?”
Police had to restrain Ross Harris after it became clear Cooper had died, police said at first.
Though he didn’t say exactly what led police to view the case as a crime, Pierce told CNN, “I’ve been in law enforcement for 34 years. What I know about this case shocks my conscience as a police officer, a father and a grandfather.”
Among the details police have released is that Harris and his wife, Leanna, told them they conducted Internet searches on how hot a car needed to be to kill a child. Stoddard testified Thursday that Ross Harris had visited a Reddit page called “child-free” and read four articles. He also did an Internet search on how to survive in prison, Stoddard said.
Also, five days before Cooper died, Ross Harris twice viewed a sort of homemade public service announcement in which a veterinarian demonstrates on video the dangers of leaving someone or something inside a hot car.
Leanna Harris told police that she had recently seen a story on a state initiative aimed at reminding people not to leave children in cars and that it was a fear of hers, Stoddard said.
Ross Harris “stated that he recently researched, through the Internet, child deaths inside vehicles and what temperature it needs to be for that to occur,” police said, adding that Harris told investigators “he was fearful that this could happen.”
During questioning, Leanna Harris “made similar statements regarding researching in car deaths and how it occurs,” police said.
The time frame for the alleged research remains unclear.
Cooper was buried Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. At his funeral, Leanna Harris said she loves her husband and stands by him.
“Am I angry with Ross?” Leanna Harris told mourners. “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.”
Carol Brown, a longtime family friend who attended the funeral, said she is not ready to convict Ross Harris, as it’s entirely possible he could have gone to his car during lunch and not seen the boy.
“He could have been distracted, but I do have questions about it,” she said.
The Cobb County Medical Examiner’s Office determined the child’s cause of death was “consistent with hyperthermia and the investigative information suggests the manner of death is homicide,” according to a Cobb County Department of Public Safety statement.
The Medical Examiner’s Office is waiting for toxicology test results before making an official ruling on the toddler’s death.