Photo above: Justin Ross Harris (in orange) listens during his preliminary hearing in Cobb County, GA courthouse.
MARIETTA, Ga. – In a horrific child death now making national headlines, on June 18th a 22-month old toddler, Cooper Harris, was left behind in a hot car while his father, Justin Ross Harris, worked a full day, and was only discovered by Harris seven hours later, on the way home. This is another case of a parent forgetting to drop a child at daycare, if the father’s defense team is to be believed, but he has been charged with felony murder and second-degree child cruelty. On July 3rd he was denied bond, keeping him behind bars as the defense and prosecution build their respective cases. Was this an unfathomable but actual accident, or was this a father seeking to be childless and carefree, as the prosecution alleges?
A central question of our modern, lightening-speed society swirls at the center of this case – how does a parent ever leave a child in a sweltering hot car? Can someone really be so distracted by their upcoming day, problems at home, financial pressures, or anything else, that they can forget their precious child? That is the mystery yet to be solved in this high-profile child murder case.
The initial evidence in the case is not good for the father, 33-year old Justin Ross Harris: he was “sexting” with as many as six women the day of his child’s death, and his recent computer searches included forms of death, life without a child, and surviving life in prison. He had also recently discussed with family members the procedure to collect on insurance policies (he had two policies on his child – one for $2,000, and another for $25,000), and on the day of the child’s death sent explicit photos of his genitalia to an underage female.
According to investigators on scene he claimed to have not gotten through to anyone on his cell phone in the minutes after discovering his son, but records show three calls that did connect, one to his employer lasting six minutes. Why the lie? He never called 911, and allegedly said “F__k you” to an officer on-scene when asked to get off his phone. He also, according to an investigator on scene that testified in his bond hearing, said “I was afraid of how he was going to look,” apparently meaning his child’s appearance in death. (The child in fact had scratches on his face and lacerations to the back of his head, probably caused by his own desperation as he succumbed to hypothermia).
His wife’s possible involvement is also a strong avenue of investigation by authorities: she also made questionable internet searches and allegedly said that her husband “must have left Cooper in the car” when she arrived to daycare in the afternoon only to be told that the child had never arrived. She reported that she and her husband were having intimacy issues, and texts confirm that she knew he had been cheating on her.
Harris’ defense presented witnesses including a man on-scene directly after the father’s discovery of his child in a parking lot that relates a man truly stunned, heartbroken and horrified by his child’s death. Friends and family additionally claim that this was a happy father who doted on his child and talked about him “incessantly.” Two polar opposite images of the same man begin to appear, as this case moves through its initial stages.
This case will be heavily covered by the media and everyone will have strong opinions. The comments on blog and websites will ramp up and pundits and television lawyers will enhance their own careers on the coattails of this case. What is forgotten by the bright spotlight is a child alone in a car, facing his last minutes in desperation and fear. His father deserves the presumption of innocence, and he must be allowed a competent and aggressive defense. I hope we can all remember the child and his short but precious life, as this baffling murder case progresses.
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You can read more by Deirdre Reilly on her BLOG.
Deirdre Reilly has written one humor book, and authored a syndicated family life column for Gatehouse Media for 13 years. She has won a Massachusetts Press Award for humor, her op-eds have been published in the Boston Herald and The Hartford Courant, and she has had short fiction published in literary journals. Deirdre was raised in Columbia, Md., and now lives outside Boston, Ma. She enjoys outdoor pursuits, and is obsessed with the care and happiness of a retired carriage horse named Nello that she bought for a few hundred dollars on a menopausal whim.