Justin Ross Harris, 33, of Marietta, was charged with cruelty to children in the first degree after Wednesday’s incident. Because the child was pronounced dead at the scene, police have also charged Harris with felony murder.
Although police have yet to release the child’s name, neighbors and social media websites appearing to belong to his parents confirm his name was Cooper Harris.
Cobb District Attorney Vic Reynolds explained the charge of felony murder does not necessarily involve intent.
“Felony murder is where you commit a felony crime,” Reynolds said. “My goal may not have been to kill you, but the results of my actions caused the death.”
The maximum sentence for felony murder is life in prison. Reynolds said the investigation is in the early stages and the charges could change or, if the death is ruled to be purely accidental, there could be no charges.
Reynolds said the case will be handed to his office once police finish their investigation and he hopes it progresses “as expeditiously as possible.”
He noted the current charges Harris is facing are based upon police evidence a judge agreed provided enough probable cause to issue a warrant.
Reynolds said his office would review the investigation “from top to bottom” upon its completion and decide what the final charges, if any, would be. However, he indicated it was still too early to speculate on what led to Cooper’s death.
“These police officers believe that charges are appropriate, the judge agrees, and the DA’s office will make the final decision,” he explained.
Harris appeared in court for the first time Thursday evening before a magistrate judge, where he pleaded not guilty to charges of child cruelty and felony murder.
Wearing a navy blue jumpsuit, the father stood motionless beside his attorney, Maddox Kilgore, while Judge John Strauss reminded Harris and the small media contingent watching from a remote location that the nature of Harris’ charges required a higher court to set bond. The judge said a July 15 hearing in Cobb Superior Court would address Harris’ bond. Until then, he will remain in jail.
Kilgore’s website boasts of his success as a criminal defender, including one 2011 case in which he secured a “rare ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ jury verdict in Cobb County where his client was charged with murder by stabbing his mother 120 times.”
Harris, who appears to go by Ross, graduated from the University of Alabama in 2012 with a Bachelor’s Degree in management information systems, according to his LinkedIn page. His profile also indicates he has worked as an IT developer at the Home Depot for two years.
He and his wife, Leanna Harris, live in a condominium complex called Wynne’s Ridge near Delk Road.
Sean Rucker, the property’s manager, said he believed the couple had recently moved in to their condo, which they were renting.
Police say Harris forgot Cooper was still in the back seat when he headed into work.
According to Harris’ arrest warrant, the toddler remained tucked in his car seat for about seven hours, until Harris discovered his son was still inside the car on his drive home shortly after 4 p.m.
Dobbins Air Force Base’s weather service indicates the temperature outside at the time the child was found was 88 degrees, but Sgt. Dana Pierce, Cobb police spokesman, said cars can heat up to temperatures as high as 135 degrees in a matter of minutes when left in direct sunlight.
Pierce said Harris had to be physically restrained before he was taken by officers to Cobb Police Headquarters for questioning.
“I know they were very loving parents,” said Ingrid Maier, a neighbor. “I could see that when I talked to them.”
Maier, who serves on the complex’s board, said the family lived in the building across from her. She said the community would do whatever it could to bring comfort to the family.
“I’m just so saddened by this whole thing,” she said. “That’s a sweet couple and I really feel for the husband.”
Maier recalled seeing Cooper strapped into a stroller before his parents took him on a walk recently, saying the toddler looked “adorable.”
“I think he’s punished enough already, to lose a child,” Maier said of the charges Harris now faces.
Wednesday’s incident has prompted an emotional outcry from the community, especially among parents with children the same age as Cooper. Many have rushed to condemn Harris’ negligence on social media, while others have defended what they perceive as an honest mistake any father could make.
“I would caution the public to reserve judgment until they hear what the actual evidence will be,” Reynolds warned. “We don’t know what the evidence is.”
Harris’ cruelty to children charge includes the description, “deprivation of necessary sustenance” according to the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office website.
“I can’t give you a specific time track, but I’d hope for sooner rather than later,” Reynolds said of his office’s effort to nail down final charges.
Anyone with information about the case is asked to call (770) 499-3945.
A news release from Cobb police Thursday said the Cobb County Medical Examiner’s Office is expected to determine the manner and cause of Cooper’s death.