Georgia father indicted on murder charges in son’s hot car death

Justin Ross Harris
Justin Ross Harris

MARIETTA, GA (CNN) — A grand jury has indicted a Georgia father in the hot car death of his toddler son.

Justin Ross Harris is charged with eight counts, including malice murder and two counts of felony murder.

The other charges are first-degree cruelty to children, second-degree cruelty to children, criminal attempt to commit a felony (sexual exploitation of a minor) and two counts of dissemination of harmful material to minors.

The two felony murder charges allege that Harris killed his 22-month-old son while committing the felonies of first- and second-degree cruelty to children. One count states he killed Cooper “maliciously,” while the other felony murder count says Harris killed him “with criminal negligence.”

If convicted of felony murder, he could face a possible death sentence. The prosecution will make the decision whether to pursue the death penalty in two to three weeks.

The case began with the anguished cry of a father in a parking lot nearly 3 months ago.

“He just screamed ‘what have I done?’ loudly,” a witness recalled.

33-year-old Justin Ross Harris says after taking his son to breakfast the morning of June 18, he forgot to drop off 22-month-old Cooper at day care, leaving him strapped in his car seat in an Atlanta area office parking lot in 90-plus degree heat for close to 7-hours.

Harris claims he discovered the mistake after leaving work that afternoon.

“He hopped out of the driver’s seat, opened the back door, pulled his child out, laid him on the concrete, tried to resuscitate him,” a witness said.

Cooper was dead. Within hours his father charged with murder and child cruelty, held without bond.

The public outcry against authorities was swift.

An online petition demanded the charges be dropped, saying they only added to a family’s heart break over a terrible accident.

But investigators painted a different picture. In a warrant, authorities said during questioning Harris admitted to researching on line “child deaths inside vehicles and what temperature it needs to be for that to occur.”

Then what came next took the case from conversational to sensational.

“He was having up to 6 different conversations with women,” Cobb County Police Det. Phil Stoddard said.

In a pre-trial hearing authorities shattered Harris’ image as a faithful husband and loving father portraying him instead as a man yearning to be single, involved in online relationships.

“Evidence is showing us right now that he’s got this whole second life he is living with alternate personalities and alternate personas,” Det. Stoddard said.

To the gasp of the courtroom investigators said Harris was sexting women sending lewd messages as his son was dying trapped in his car seat.

“Were photos being sent back and forth between these women and the defendant during this day while the child was in the car?” Prosecutor asked.

“Yes, there are photos of his exposed penis, erect penis being sent. There are also photos of women’s breasts being sent back to him,” Det. Stoddard responded.

Harris’ attorney called the sexting claims irrelevant and had nothing to do with the child’s death. He said his client is not guilty and instead outlined what is likely to be Harris’ defense if the case goes to trial.

“It’s not criminal negligence. It’s a horrible tragedy and an accident,” H. Maddox Kilgore said.

Harris has been held without bond since Cooper’s death this summer.

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