Conversations abound on Cobb toddler’s death

Michael Ross was watching TV news on the father accused of leaving his son in a hot car to die, when his 9-year-old boy joined him.

“Do you think he did it on purpose?” his son, Aaron, asked.

“I’d like to think he didn’t,” Ross answered. “But it looks like he may have.”

His son responded, he said, with a sad silence.

Conversations are occurring all over metro Atlanta and beyond about Justin Ross Harris, his wife and their poor deceased toddler, Cooper. Sometimes it’s two neighbors sharing details on the boy’s tragic death. Or it’s Facebook friends speculating on what went through Harris’ mind.

And sometimes it’s a little boy learning about the hard truths of the world.

Harris has been charged with Cooper’s death, though he has told police it was a horrible moment of forgetfulness. Since then, a string of developments, some jaw-dropping, have made for riveting real-life drama.

People chew over every detail about a family that had seemed like many in metro Atlanta —- living in the suburbs, driving an SUV, taking their boy to ball games —- but who now appear so very different.

Joe Lyle attends the Marietta church frequented by the Harris family. Lyle believes people need to pray for the Harris family, and while he believes Harris has “some issues, ” he doesn’t see murder among them.

“I don’t think there was one iota of evidence against him at that hearing the other day,” said Lyle, 68.

Still, there’s been a shift in popular sentiment on the case –some people who first viewed Harris as a parent who made a terrible mistake, now believe something far more sinister occurred in his Hyundai Tucson.

Innocent until proven guilty? Not for Trish Gates and her friends.

“Not in this neighborhood, baby, ” said Gates, of Lilburn. “We all agree he’s guilty as hell.”

Lyle senses the shift. “It makes me feel kind of alone,” he said.

Some people continue to reserve judgment.

In Northport, Ala., not far from where the Harris family lived before Marietta, Sandra Pike said she watched portions of the televised hearing in which police leveled accusations against Harris. Still, she said, she can’t bring herself to condemn him.

“I just can’t believe anybody would do that to a child, ” said Pike, who does not know the family.

Crime stories that involve children’s deaths often generate public interest. Atlanta has seen more than its share of these stories in recent months, many involving repeatedly abusive caregivers and a negligent state child protection agency.

But the Harris family seemed like young, stable and doting parents. They appeared so familiar to us, and, if anything, that has added to the intrigue.

“This family doesn’t fit the popular stereotype —- negligent parents, the mother’s abusive boyfriend, living in poverty, ” said Marian Meyers, a Georgia State University communications professor.

“When there are stories like this, many people are surprised … and that adds to the interest.”

Meyers said studies show that crime stories in which a white child dies generate more media coverage than those involving minority children.

Fueling the story even further, she said, have been the salacious allegations that Justin Ross Harris texted sexually explicit messages with six women while Cooper was trapped in the vehicle. With all these dramatic elements, Meyers sees the public interest growing. CNN’s Nancy Grace is teeing up the story, and TV news programs have placed Harris’ photo alongside those of Casey Anthony and Scott Peterson, two notorious defendants who generated long-term national interest.

For Michael Ross, a Marietta product manager, the fascination with this story begins and ends with his being a parent. When Ross first heard of Cooper’s death in a car, his heart went out to the father. He was troubled by the murder charge.

But seeds of doubt grew when police said Harris had been researching the deaths of children in hot cars. Ross questioned several statements made by Harris’ wife, Leanna, as well. And Thursday’s hearing “really got me.”

“The more that comes out, the angrier I get, ” he said.

Krystle Walker is so consumed with the Harris case, she’s made it a mission.

The Toccoa mother has a 22-month-old son, the same age as Cooper. She is convinced Harris’ guilt was premeditated, and she has strong suspicions about his wife, who has not been charged.

A week ago, Walker helped start a private Facebook page called Justice for Cooper Harris, which has grown to 200 members, many of them mothers.

“I just feel so emotional about it, ” said Walker, adding that she posts on the site upwards to 20 times a day.

The other day, she was buckling her son Levi into his child’s car seat when she began to consider what went through Cooper’s mind that terrible day. Did he wonder why his dad wasn’t coming to help him?

She went home thinking that whatever happens, it will not bring this child back. She cried for over an hour.

Her husband, Phillip, tried to comfort her, telling her it will be OK.

“It will never be OK, ” she told him.

Inside the Stonebridge Church in Marietta, which the Harris family has attended for two years, Pastor David Eldridge briefly talked about the case Sunday. What happens in the legal system is “all outside our hands, ” he told the assembly of 125 people inside the small storefront enclave.

“We need to look for opportunities to love Ross and Leanna, ” he said.

He said people need to have faith that God can work good out of everything, even though he later acknowledged he is having trouble seeing that here.

“We need to ask God for truth and justice and mercy, ” he said.

After the service, several church members declined to speak publicly. Some said privately that they support the family, and others said they are leaving judgment to God.

“The family needs a lot of prayer, ” said Bill Hall, 63, adding that he still sees a lot of support for the Harris family, “especially in this church.”

As she exited the church, Carolyn Whiting, a 71-year-old native of this city, said she has been disturbed by the accusations against Justin Ross Harris.

“I hope to be able to pray for him, ” she said. “But not yet.”

Staff writer Ariel Hart contributed to this article.