Details emerge in court hearing of father who left son in hot car
(CNN) — 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 Thursday in the father’s hearing on murder and child cruelty charges.
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 the couple were having “intimacy problems,” according to the detective.
Cobb County Detective Phil Stoddard testified at the probable cause hearing of 33-year-old Harris. Stoddard said Harris told police that he reached no one on his phone after taking his lifeless son out of his vehicle on June 18. But police determined he made three phone calls, including at least one that went through — a six-minute conversation to his son’s daycare center.
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,” Cobb County police Detective Phil Stoddard testified. Harris exited the vehicle yelling, “Oh, my God, what have I done?” Stoddard said.
Harris 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.
Before he left work on the afternoon his son died in a hot vehicle, Harris contacted friends with whom he was supposed to see a 5 p.m. movie and told them he’d be late, Stoddard testified. But Harris left work at 4:16 p.m. — plenty of time to get to the movie theater, which is less than a 10-minute drive away, Stoddard testified.
After the child’s death, Stoddard testified that Justin made comments indicating that he felt his son’s death was about him. Stoddard said some of those comments included, “I can’t believe this is happening to me,” and “I’ll be charged with a felony. Stoddard said Harris also talked about losing his job.
Cooper’s mother, Leanna Harris
Stoddard also testified that Leanna Harris, mother of 22-month-old Cooper Harris, made out-of-the-ordinary comments when she arrived to pick him up that day at the day care center. Stoddard said after people told her Cooper was never dropped off, Leanna suddenly said, “Ross must have left him in the car.” Witnesses said they tried to tell her many other things could have happened, but Leanna was, “like, no,” Stoddard said.
A second life?
Stoddard testified that there is evidence that suggests Harris has a “second life” with alternate personalities and personas, which would make him a flight risk because it would make him harder to keep track of. No other details regarding this evidence were made known.
Justin’s explicit computer communications
According to Stoddard’s testimony, Justin Harris had computer conversations with women on or before the day his son died — exchanges that included Harris sending explicit photos of himself. His wife also told police the couple were having “intimacy problems.” A prosecutor told the judge this information goes to motive.
Harris also visited a Reddit subpage called “child free” and read four articles there, Stoddard testified on Thursday. Harris also did an Internet search on how to survive prison.
Two life insurance policies
Messages between the couple indicate that the two were having financial problems, the detective said. They had two insurance policies on Cooper, one for $2,000 and one for $25,000, Stoddard said.
Spectators attend probable cause hearing
Dozens of reporters and spectators attended the hearing. They filled the courtroom, with about 20 people left to stand.
Among those in the courtroom was the toddler’s mother, who was holding another woman’s hand and appeared emotional when her husband was brought into the courtroom in an orange prison jumpsuit.
At the probable cause hearing, a judge will determine whether there’s enough evidence to support charges of murder and second-degree child cruelty against Harris. If prosecutors are successful in making their case to the judge, it will proceed to a grand jury, where the district attorney will seek an indictment.
Fewer than 10 witnesses are expected to be called, said Kim Isaza, a spokeswoman for the Cobb County district attorney. Police investigators are likely to take the stand, as well as possible character witnesses, all of whom will be subject to cross-examination.
It’s possible, but unlikely, that Harris and his wife will testify, Isaza said.
Police say Harris left his toddler, Cooper, strapped into a car seat under a baking sun for seven hours while he went to work. Records show 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.
Harris, who is being held without bail, has pleaded not guilty.
When news of the boy’s death first 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, 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.
Initially, police said Harris had apparently forgotten 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 Harris after it became clear Cooper had died, police said at first.
Police Sergent’s conscience “shocked”
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.
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.