“This investigation, although similar in nature to others, must be weighed on its own merit and the facts that lead our detectives to charge the father must be presented at the appropriate time during the judicial process,” said Cobb Police Chief John Houser in a release. “The chain of events that occurred in this case does not point toward simple negligence and evidence will be presented to support this allegation.”
The county medical examiner’s office has released the cause of Cooper Harris’ death as hyperthermia, or elevated body temperature.
Justin Ross Harris, 33, of Marietta initially told police he forgot to take his son Cooper to day care on the morning of June 18 before heading into work at The Home Depot’s headquarters in Cumberland.
By the time Harris made his way home in his Hyundai Tucson that afternoon, Cooper was dead.
An updated arrest warrant obtained Wednesday indicates Harris stopped for breakfast at a Chick-fil-A near his office and then placed his son in the back of his car.
According to police, Harris left his office during lunch, went to his car and opened the driver’s side door to “place an object in the vehicle.”
Police say he did not acknowledge the fact that his son, who was strapped into a rear-facing car seat in the center of the back seat, was in the car until he had driven part of the way home after work.
A release from Cobb police indicated the manner of death was homicide given the “investigative information” authorities have gathered.
The statement, released Wednesday evening, clarified the definition of homicide in the medical sense simply denotes a “death caused by another.”
During a press conference Wednesday evening at Cobb police headquarters, spokesman Mike Bowman said Harris and witnesses were questioned at the scene. Harris was then taken to police headquarters for questioning, which led to his arrest.
Bowman would not elaborate on details of the investigation, giving only hints of its findings so far.
“There’s a difference between negligence and gross negligence,” he said. “The thing about negligence is it can happen to anybody. Gross negligence shows there are some other circumstances revolving around it.”
Bowman urged patience from the public, saying he hadn’t checked any social media sites himself since the case broke in order to keep a neutral mind.
“Let us do our job; don’t be so quick to judge,” Bowman said. “This isn’t an everyday thing.”
Reached by phone, Harris’ Marietta-based attorney Maddox Kilgore declined to comment on the case.
“For right now, I can’t make any comment,” he said.
Some remain unconvinced
Left in a car in the hot sun, Cooper Harris likely was dead within the first hour, according to Janette Fennell, president and founder of KidsAndCars.org, a Missouri-based group that studies child deaths involving cars.
According to Dobbins Air Reserve Base, the temperature was 88 degrees when the child was found at 4 p.m. Fennell said temperatures inside a closed car top out at 40 degrees hotter than the outside air.
Fennell said she wouldn’t be surprised if Ross Harris opened his car door at noon and didn’t notice the child, especially if Harris only reached in for a moment.
“You don’t see something you’re not looking for,” Fennell said.
One difference between the updated warrant and the one produced last week is the cruelty to children charge has been changed from first degree to second degree.
Ray Gary, Jr., a Marietta-based attorney, explained the difference between first and second degree cruelty to children.
“All crimes have two elements, the act and the intent,” Gary said. “If something is an accident, it’s not a crime. For first-degree cruelty to children it’s malicious intent; for second degree, which is easier to prove, it’s negligence.”
Gary said it looks like police are “backing up a little bit,” and changing to a lesser charge in hopes of moving the case forward.
The change could make little difference overall since the felony murder charge remains. A conviction for felony murder can lead to a life sentence in prison, according to Cobb District Attorney Vic Reynolds.
The warrant indicates police think Harris left his son in the car on purpose, Gary said.
“If you left a child in the car on purpose and it caused their death, it’s felony murder,” Gary said.
But Gary, a former Cobb magistrate court judge, said based on what he’s seen so far he still can’t figure out why Harris was charged with murder.
“The fact he came back later to put something in the car, that doesn’t tell me he remembered the child was there,” Gary said. “I haven’t seen anything that indicates he did it on purpose.”
Court hearing moved up
Harris pulled into the Akers Mill Square strip mall off Akers Mill Road shortly after 4 p.m. that afternoon and begged strangers there for help.
First responders pronounced Cooper dead at the scene.
Fox 5’s Randy Travis reported Wednesday investigators seized Harris’ office computer following his arrest. A law enforcement source told Fox 5 someone searched for information on how long it would take an animal to die in a hot car.
Bowman was asked about the search during the press conference, but did not elaborate.
Harris remains in the county jail, where he is being held without bond. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him. A spokesperson for the sheriff’s office said Harris would not be transported to his son’s funeral, which will take place Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The presiding clergy will be David Eldridge, pastor of Stonebridge Church just off the Marietta Square, where the family attended locally.
The county magistrate court reported Harris will next appear in court July 3, where the issue of his bond will be addressed.
Judge Frank Cox, chief of Cobb’s magistrate court, will preside over the hearing, which was moved up from July 15.
Family receives support
Cooper Harris’ obituary, submitted by Tuscaloosa Memorial Chapel on Wednesday, describes his parents as a loving mother and father.
“Cooper was born on Aug. 2, 2012, to the most proud parents there could have ever been,” reads the obituary. “He was loved and cherished and protected by both parents and all family members for his short 22 months of life.”
The family also thanked those who have supported them through the ordeal.
“The family would like to express their sincerest thank you to those who have supported them during this tragic time,” the obituary reads. “The outpouring of love has been tremendously overwhelming in the best way possible. Specifically, we would like to thank any individuals who have chosen to support our family, whether it has been financial or spreading the word of support and prayers for the loss of our sweet Cooper.”
One group supporting Harris is The Home Depot, which has donated funds for Cooper Harris’ funeral, according to company spokeswoman Catherine Woodling.
“It is our standard approach for the Homer Fund to provide grants for funeral expenses for associates,” Woodling said.
The Homer Fund is a nonprofit charity started by Home Depot in 1999, according to its website. The maximum grant is for $10,000, according to Woodling.
“We’re not really commenting on the actual investigation, but we would do this for any associate that is in need,” Woodling said.
A YouCaring.com fund set up to help the family has raised $22,162.