Petition to drop charges against father retracted
by Sarah Westwood
June 27, 2014 04:00 AM | 4750 views | 0 0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Justin Ross Harris
Justin Ross Harris
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MARIETTA — In the days after Justin Ross Harris was charged with murder and accused of leaving his 22-month-old son in a hot car to die, thousands of supporters rushed to sign an online petition criticizing law enforcement’s handling of what appeared to be an accident.

The change.org petition, authored by an organization called Parents Support Parents, was withdrawn Thursday after Cobb police released a statement from the county medical examiner and updated warrants a day earlier that indicated Harris had initially lied to investigators about what he did on the day of Cooper’s death.

More than 11,000 people had joined the online call urging District Attorney Vic Reynolds’ office to drop Harris’ murder and child cruelty charges.

“This is a horrible accident,” the original petition reads. “The father loved his son immensely. These were very loving parents who are devastated. Justin already has to live with a punishment worse than death. Sending what’s left of his family into bankruptcy to defend him against these charges is only bringing more hardship to a family that will never recover from the loss of a child.”

Many who joined the petition against Reynolds wrote passionate defenses of Harris when news of the event began to spread.

“We are all only one phone call, song on the radio, or stressful thought away from this happening to us,” wrote Ella Herlihy of Atlanta of her reason for signing the petition.

“I am a mother to a 12-year-old and an 18-month-old. I have never forgotten to drop my son off at day care, but I can see how easily this could happen to me, or anyone I know,” said Nichole Boyer of Grapevine, Texas, of why she added her name to the list of supporters.

But the tone of notes attached to the petition began to change once signers learned the latest evidence police had against Harris.

“It is amazing to see a petition change from ‘free him’ to ‘crucify’ him, so quickly,” wrote Bob Roberts of Ellicott City, Md.

Some people wrote into the site requesting their name be removed from the list.

“I think that based on the recent developments this petition is no longer relevant,” said a new statement withdrawing the petition altogether Thursday, written by Ashley Howell of Atlanta. “I still pray that this was truly an accident.”

Support for Harris, a University of Alabama graduate and Web analyst, remains.

As of Thursday evening, an online donation page called YouCaring.com had collected $22,442 from 517 supporters to go directly to Harris and his wife through a trust at the Alabama Credit Union, according to one of its updates.

The fund’s organizer issued a plea to supporters Wednesday to ignore the media, writing: “Ross got bashed last night by the media. Please don’t listen to the media. It just upsets me to watch it.”

Michael Blasco, spokesman for YouCaring.com, said people who donate through the site have the option to withdraw their donations if, in a case such as Harris’, they feel uncomfortable giving money to a cause.

“Both payment portals that we use would allow someone to request a refund from any payment made within a respective period of time,” Blasco explained. “The payment portals are WePay and PayPal.”

Officer Mike Bowman, a spokesman for the county police department, said the timeline of events on the day Cooper Harris died was of “evidentiary value” to the investigation.

“The detectives know the timeline,” Bowman said. “They know when the individual was supposed to be at work, when he stopped at the food restaurant, when he got to work, when he went to lunch and when he left from work. All of that is very critical information to how long the whole situation transpired.” He declined to release specifics.

Harris originally told police he forgot to drop Cooper off at day care June 18 before heading into work at a building that houses Homedepot.com’s offices. He claimed he only noticed the toddler was still in the back seat after he had driven part of the way home that afternoon.

The updated warrant said Harris returned to his car, a 2011 Hyundai Tucson, during lunch and opened the driver’s side door. They also revealed Harris stopped for breakfast at the Vinings Chick-fil-A near his Cumberland office before police say he left his child strapped in a car seat all day.

Harris pulled into Akers Mill Square strip mall off Akers Mill Road and called upon strangers there to dial 911.

First responders pronounced Cooper dead at the scene.

Bowman also said the medical examiner’s office issued its preliminary autopsy findings. He said the autopsy was completed June 19.

“The Cobb County Medical Examiner believes that the cause of death is consistent with hyperthermia and the investigative information suggests the manner of death is homicide,” he said at a press conference Wednesday evening at police headquarters. Bowman added the designation of homicide in the medical and legal sense simply denotes a death as “caused by another.”

The full autopsy reports will be released pending a toxicology report, Bowman said.

“That report could be done in a week, a month; it all depends on their process.”

Calls to the Cobb County medical examiner’s office were not returned by press time.

The Fulton County medical examiner’s office said toxicology reports are done on “just about all” autopsies — including those performed on children.

“It depends on what we have and what the circumstances are,” said a person who works at the Fulton medical examiner’s office, who declined to be named. “But we run them on just about everything.”

The Fulton employee said there is no standard toxicology test in the state of Georgia, and that investigators look for different substances in different cases depending on the circumstances of the person’s death.

He said toxicology tests in Fulton can take from 12 to 16 weeks to be completed if they are sent to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and from two to three weeks if they send it to a private lab; the office chooses where to send specimens on a case-by-case basis.

The official added law enforcement has “no capability of expediting toxicology reports in high profile cases in the state of Georgia.”

Bowman said detectives located Cooper’s mother the night of the incident and brought her into county police headquarters near Marietta Square for questioning. Leanna Harris has declined to speak with the media in the week since her son’s death.

Justin Ross Harris is being held without bond in the county jail. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him. Wednesday’s warrant upheld the felony murder charge, but downgraded the child cruelty charge to a second degree felony offense.

A spokesperson for the sheriff’s office said Harris would not be transported to his son’s funeral, scheduled for Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Ala. 

Fox 5’s Randy Travis reported Wednesday investigators seized Harris’ office computer following his arrest. A law enforcement source told Fox 5 someone used to computer to search for information on how long it would take an animal to die in a hot car. 

Bowman would not confirm or deny the seizure, but did acknowledge police have obtained several search warrants.

“We’re not going to get into the specifics of the case, and that said, the search warrants have been applied for,” he said.

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