ATLANTA — On Thursday, defense attorney Lawrence Zimmerman confirmed to CNN he had been retained by Leanna Harris, the mother of 22-month old Cooper Harris, who died June 18 when he was left strapped all day in his car seat inside his father’s SUV.
Initially, police described the death of Cooper as the result of tragic absent-mindedness.
They said the dad, Justin Ross Harris, had apparently forgotten the boy was in the back seat of his Hyundai Tucson; he didn’t remember until he was done with his workday, drove a couple of miles and pulled into a shopping center parking lot.
But suspicions grew as police investigated.
The Cobb County medical examiner’s office found the child’s cause of death “consistent with hyperthermia and the investigative information suggests the manner of death is homicide.”
Investigators have also unearthed uncomfortable details in Harris’ online activities. He has performed Internet searches on child death in hot cars, they said.
While Cooper was left in the car, Harris was allegedly chatting via an online contact service with women. Police say that Harris, who is married, has, in the past, sent sexually explicit messages and photos on the service, including to an underage girl.
Leanna Harris, Justin’s wife, has not been named a suspect in the case. Officer Michael Bowman, a Cobb County police spokesman, said Monday, “Leanna Harris has been interviewed. Detectives continue to work on the case.”
Police have alleged she behaved strangely in the days before and moments after the death of her 22-month-old boy.
As they investigate, detectives in Georgia wanted to know how high the temperature climbed in that back seat, so this week they recreated that sauna heat in Justin Ross Harris’ silver Hyundai Tucson.
They drove it to the spot where it sat in the heat for seven hours on June 18, the day Cooper died.
They parked in the same space that Harris did, WAGA reported, and measured the temperature at times of day that are key to the father’s felony murder case:
– At 9:30 a.m., when police say Harris pulled into the parking lot at Home Depot’s corporate offices, where he worked. He normally would have taken Cooper to daycare then but left him in the car.
– At 12:42 p.m., when the 33-year-old father placed light bulbs he had purchased inside the car.
– And at 4:16 p.m., when investigators say Harris drove off.
Authorities have not released the data yet, but CNN weather experts believe temperatures could have climbed to nearly 140 degrees inside the car.
A government traffic agency has corroborated the possibility.
“Cars parked in direct sunlight can reach internal temperatures up to 131 degrees F — 172 degrees F when outside temperatures are 80 degrees F — 100 degrees F,” the National Highway Traffic and Safety Authority said.
“Even outside temperatures in the 60s can cause a car temperature to rise well above 110° F.”
On the day Cooper died, the high temperature reached 92 degrees. Investigators used outside thermometers on Tuesday to monitor outdoor temperature rises.
Dozens of children die in hot cars every year, the NHTSA said.
People are in danger of dying of heatstroke when their body temperatures climb above 104 degrees and stay there for prolonged periods, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Heat attacks the brain, heart, kidneys and muscles, the Mayo Clinic said.
Victims can experience nausea and faintness, before organ damage sets in, eventually leading to death.
The elderly and small children are particularly susceptible to heatstroke.