Justin Ross Harris will be tried on charges that he intentionally murdered his son, as well as seven other felonies, and if convicted he could receive the death penalty.
A Cobb County grand jury indicted Harris for malice murder Thursday after prosecutors presented their evidence in the case. Harris’ 22-month-old son, Cooper, died June 18 after his father left him for seven hours in a sweltering SUV in the parking lot of the Home Depot office where he worked.
Harris told police it was a terrible accident, but they arrested him the same night, saying his story didn’t ring true. Harris is being held in a Cobb County jail without bond.
Grand jury proceedings are not public; the full nature of the evidence against Harris likely won’t be known until he goes to trial, which is likely to take several months. But police and prosecutors have said from early on that they believe Harris had tired of family life and wanted to escape its burdens.
At a news conference Thursday afternoon, Cobb District Attorney Vic Reynolds said his office will decide in the next two to three weeks whether to seek the death penalty.
He declined to discuss the evidence against Harris, saying the law prohibits him from doing so. “This case will be resolved in a court of law,” he said. “The evidence in the case has led us to this point. … We look forward to this case running its course and ultimately justice being served.”
Later, Harris’ lawyer, H. Maddox Kilgore, said the state has presented no coherent narrative about why Harris, who is consistently described by those who know him as an adoring dad, would commit such an unspeakable crime.
“We still don’t know what the state’s theory is,” Kilgore said, listing what he called a “maze of theories” floated by police and prosecutors since Harris’ arrest: that he did it for the insurance money, that he wanted to live “a wild, single life,” that he and his wife, Leanna, colluded together.
“Ross doesn’t have a theory, just the truth,” Kilgore said. “The truth is that Cooper’s death was a horrible, gut-wrenching accident.”
The lawyer for Leanna Harris, Lawrence Zimmerman, said she was disappointed by the charges. “She prayed really hard that it would turn out a different way.”
But the indictment drew applause on social media sites. “Good!!!!!!!!!!!” “Way to go, Vic Reynolds!” and “How do I go about getting called for jury duty?” were among the comments on Twitter.
In addition to malice murder, the charges against Harris are two counts of felony murder, child cruelty in the first and second degree, attempting to sexually exploit children, and two counts of dissemination of harmful material to minors.
Criminal defense attorney Steve Sadow said he reads the charges as a signal that prosecutors have more evidence than they have aired thus far. “I’m assuming they have more evidence than they did at the probable cause hearing,” he said.
The indictment represents a significant escalation in the charges against Harris. To convict him of malice murder, prosecutors will have to persuade a jury that he intentionally killed his son. The previous charges obtained by police, felony murder and second-degree child cruelty, would require only that they show he acted with criminal negligence.
Felony murder refers to a death that occurs during the commission of another felony.
Showing malicious intent will make the prosecution’s task more difficult, said Dunwoody criminal defense attorney Esther Panitch.
“The prosecution is going to have to get inside his mind,” Panitch said. “Jurors will want to know a motive.”
Sadow struck the same note. “The defense needs to insist they show motive,” he said, “not as a legal requirement, but as a common-sense requirement. If they can’t show motive they can’t prove malice.”
The charges of attempted child exploitation and distribution of harmful material to minors stem from Harris’ alleged sexting activities. According to the indictment, those activities included sending lewd descriptions and photos to a woman younger than 18.
To win the death penalty, prosecutors would have to prove not only that Harris deliberately killed his son but that certain “aggravating circumstances” were present. In this case those circumstances could include either the child cruelty charges or evidence that Harris’ treatment of Cooper was tantamount to torture.
If they can do that, they stand a good chance of securing a death sentence, Panitch said. “The intentional murder and torture of a child is about as egregious and heinous as it gets. If you’re going to have a death penalty, this is the kind of case that merits it.”
Earlier in the investigation, police also drew attention to what they characterized as odd behavior or statements on the part of Leanna Harris. No indictments were returned against her today, but Reynolds appeared to leave the door open.
Whether the evidence “leads us to anyone else remains to be answered,” he said.
Zimmerman, the lawyer for Leanna Harris, responded: “I’m surprised they’re still contemplating whether my client had any involvement in this.”
Ross and Leanna Harris moved to Marietta in 2012 from their hometown of Tuscaloosa, Ala. Ross worked in information technology for Home Depot and Leanna is a dietitian.
Cooper was born in August 2012. Friends say both parents doted on the boy and treated him well.
But at the July probable cause hearing, prosecutors said Harris’ cyber-sex life and information he viewed on various websites revealed a man who longed to be free of the constraints of marriage and fatherhood.
J. Tom Morgan, the former district attorney of DeKalb County, said the case presents distinct challenges for prosecutors.
“Usually a child who has been murdered had prior abuse,” he said. “You’ve got a guy here who, by all accounts, was a loving, caring father. Did he just wake up one day and decide he wanted to kill his child? It’s hard for John Q. Public to wrap their arms around that.
“Vic has set the bar pretty high,” Morgan said. Nevertheless, he said that Reynolds, whom he knows well, is not like some prosecutors who will “overcharge” in hopes of securing a plea deal. “He would not indict without a reasonable certainty of conviction.”
On the morning of June 18, Ross was supposed to take Cooper to day care on his way to work. They stopped for breakfast at a Chick-fil-A, where observers said the boy appeared alert and happy.
After they ate, Ross strapped Cooper into his car seat in the family’s Hyundai Tucson. The car seat was positioned in the middle of the back seat, facing backward.
According to police, once he left the restaurant parking lot, it would have taken Harris less than a minute to reach the intersection where he would turn to go to the day care. Instead he continued directly to his office, where he left the boy in the car.
According to police testimony, Harris spent part of the day sending sexually explicit texts, including images of his genitals, to as many as six women. Meanwhile, the temperature outside climbed into the high 80s, meaning the vehicle’s interior was well over 100.
Harris returned to the car briefly after having lunch with some friends. He opened the driver’s door and tossed in a package of light bulbs he had purchased during the lunch excursion.
During the afternoon, Harris texted Leanna, asking her what time she planned to pick up Cooper from day care.
He left work shortly after 4 to meet some friends at a movie theater. A couple of miles from his office, he abruptly turned into the parking lot of a strip mall, where observers said he pulled Cooper’s body from the car and began shouting, “What have I done?”
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