Father charged with murder in toddler’s death remains in jail

Father charged with murder in toddler’s death remains in jail

The father accused of killing his 22-month-old son by leaving him in a hot SUV will spend at least the next month in the Cobb County jail.

Justin Ross Harris, 33, of Marietta, was silent and showed no outward emotions during his brief appearance Thursday night before a judge. Because he’s been charged with murder, Harris could not be granted bond, Magistrate Judge John Strauss said.

Harris’ attorney, Mattox Kilgore, confirmed he and his client understood he was not eligible for bond. Harris will remain in the Cobb jail until his next court appearance, scheduled for July 15 in Superior Court.

While the investigation into the toddler’s death continues, questions lingered regarding how it could have happened.

Investigators consulted with Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds before securing an arrest warrant for Harris. Reynolds said Thursday the investigation is “far, far from over.”

“I don’t know where this investigation will ultimately lead,” Reynolds said in a phone interview with AM 750 and 95.5 FM News/Talk WSB.

When a suspect is charged with a felony — such as cruelty to children in the first degree — which results in the loss of life, a murder charge is appropriate, Reynolds said.

“It’s just a terrible, God-awful situation,” Reynolds said. “I can’t imagine, I can’t fathom what any parent would be going through at this stage. It’s the type of case that affects the community.”

In addition to murder, Harris is charged with cruelty to children in the first degree, according to his arrest warrant.

“Said accused did leave a 22-month-old juvenile male unattended and strapped into a child car seat in a parked vehicle for approximately seven hours during daytime hours after which the child was found deceased,” the warrant states.

An autopsy will be conducted by the Cobb County Medical Examiner’s Office to determine the cause of death for the child, according to Sgt. Dana Pierce with Cobb police.

The child’s name was not released by police. But the Facebook page believed to belong to Harris shows several pictures of the boy, identified as Cooper.

Harris, who goes by Ross, is a Tuscaloosa, Ala., native who just passed the two-year mark of employment with Home Depot, according to his online profile. A Home Depot corporate office is located about two miles from the Akers Mill Road shopping center where Harris drove his son Wednesday afternoon. It was that parking lot where the boy was pronounced dead by emergency responders.

Harris graduated from the University of Alabama in 2012 with a degree in Management Information Systems, according to his LinkedIn page. His son was born in August of that year.

Harris, his wife and toddler were renting a condo off Terrell Mill Road, but hoped to buy a home, their landlord said Thursday.

Joe Saini, who rents the family their condo, said Harris and his wife are “very, very nice” people who were in love with their baby.

“Everything was going right for this couple,” Saini said. “They wanted to buy a house so they could have some space for their child to run around the backyard.”

Thursday afternoon, a handful of cars were parked outside the family’s condo. A man identifying himself as Justin Harris’ father, Reggie, came outside to walk the family dog.

“We have some pretty strong feelings but we can’t talk right now,” he said.

The investigation continues in the child’s death, according to police. Anyone with information that may assist detectives is asked to call 770-499-3945.

— Staff writer Craig Schneider contributed to this report.

EARLIER STORY: By the time a father realized he had left his toddler strapped in a carseat inside a steaming SUV all day Wednesday, it was too late. The 22-month-old was dead.

That father’s horrific realization turned into a frantic race to revive the child in the parking lot of a busy Cobb County shopping center Wednesday afternoon. The distraught man, whose name was not released, had to be handcuffed by arriving officers as witnesses and then paramedics administered CPR, according to Cobb County police.

“What have I done? What have I done?” witnesses heard the man scream. “I’ve killed our child.”

The toddler was supposed to have been dropped off at daycare Wednesday morning, sometime between 8:30 and 9, according to Sgt. Dana Pierce with Cobb police. Instead, the child was left in the backseat of a Hyundai Tucson, and the father went to work, Pierce said. The father told police he somehow forgot his child was in the backseat of the four-door SUV, but police released no explanation for how the toddler was overlooked. The child, whose name and gender were not released, was pronounced dead at the scene by the Cobb County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Wednesday’s death is the second in two days involving children left in cars, coming one day after a 9-month-old Florida girl died after being left in her father’s pickup truck, according to reports. The child in Cobb County is believed to be the 14th to die from heatstroke inside a vehicle this year in the United States, according to KidsAndCars.org, which tracks fatalities involving children and vehicles. Last year, 43 children died after being left in vehicles, according to the Department of Earth and Climate Sciences at San Francisco State University.

High temperatures Wednesday reached the low 90s, according to Channel 2 Action News meteorologist Brad Nitz. Within 10 minutes of being inside a closed vehicle, temperatures inside can rise an average of 19 degrees, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Shortly after 4 p.m., the man was leaving an office in the Cumberland Mall area when he realized his child was in medical distress, according to police. From U.S. 41, the man turned on to Akers Mill Road and into the Akers Mill Square shopping center, witnesses said.

Behind a strip row of small restaurants, the man screamed for help and called 911.

“Apparently he forgot the child was in the carseat,” Pierce said at the scene. “When the father discovered the 22-month-old in the backseat, he immediately got out of the car.”

Witnesses rushed to the SUV and began administering CPR, seconds before both police officers and firefighters arrived at the scene. Several officers were already patrolling the area at the time, Pierce said. One witness, Dale Hamilton, said he initially thought the child was choking, but quickly learned otherwise.

“He pulled him out, laid him on the ground, and tried to resuscitate him,” Hamilton said.

Restaurant patrons and others in the shopping center gathered on the sidewalks, hoping for the best. It didn’t happen.

“He was lifeless, he was in the same position as if he were sitting in the carseat,” Hamilton said. “It’s something that I’ll remember for a long time.”

While officers investigated the child’s death, the father was driven away from the shopping center in the back of a patrol car. He was taken to police headquarters for questioning, Pierce said. It was not known late Wednesday if any charges would be filed.

In a high-profile Atlanta case, the owner of a Jonesboro daycare and her daughter were convicted in the 2011 death of a 2-year-old Jazmin Green, who was left in a closed van for about three hours on a sweltering June afternoon.

— Staff writer Dan Klepal contributed to this report.

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