Justin Ross Harris was arrested and charged five years ago today with intentionally leaving his young son inside a hot car to die. Since then Harris has become the de facto face of hot car death, a tragic phenomenon rare enough to capture headlines almost every time it happens.
But it’s happening more than ever, despite all the attention and education efforts that followed Harris’ trial.
A record 52 children died as a result of vehicular heat stroke last year, more than double the number recorded in 2015, the year after Cooper Harris’ death. The number’s gone up every year since, from what had been a rough annual average of 37 deaths.
Harris’ conviction has complicated the challenge facing KidsandCars.org, a group long dedicated to educating the public that anyone can end up at the center of such an unimaginable tragedy.
“Parents have so many things coming at them,” said founder and president Janette Fennell, who strongly believes Harris did not mean to kill his son.
“Attention spans are getting so much shorter. Our brains can’t keep up.”
Since 22-month-old Cooper’s death and his father’s trial, Fennell said, education and awareness are at all-time highs.
“If that was the sole answer,” she said, “how do you explain what happened last year?”
Harris insisted Cooper’s death was an accident, saying he assumed he had dropped his son off at daycare on his way to work. Instead, the toddler was experiencing an agonizing death, locked inside a scorching hot car.
Authorities were suspicious from the start. Harris, who spent the last day of Cooper’s life exchanging lewd text messages with an underage paramour, killed his son so he’d be free to pursue other relationships, prosecutors argued. Harris’ wife strongly defended him at first, but filed for divorce once his dalliances were revealed.
“I don’t believe he planned the murder of our child,” Leanna Harris told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2017.
Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley Clark sentenced Harris to life in prison without the possibility of parole plus 32 years for murder, cruelty to children and sexual exploitation of a minor.
» LISTEN | “Breakdown” Season 2: Death in a Hot Car
University of South Florida neuroscientist David Diamond, a nationally recognized expert on memory, recently authored a study showing that accidentally leaving a child in a car can result from a type of memory failure.
Under certain circumstances, a driver can completely forget the child is there, Diamond concluded. Experts say an overwhelming number of these cases are unintentional, and Diamond argues that criminal prosecutions in such situations are unjust.
In the years since Harris’ conviction, there has been no discernible rise in prosecutions nationwide, Fennell said.
“The problem is that basically the same set of facts in one jurisdiction is treated differently than another,” she said.
But in Georgia, a majority of these cases since 2014 have led to criminal charges. Several featured significant evidence of negligence.
In 2018, Dijanelle Fowler, 25, pleaded guilty in DeKalb County Superior Court to second-degree murder in the death of her 1-year-old daughter.
The child perished in the heat after the car’s air conditioning ran the battery down, Fowler’s attorney said. Fowler was inside a neighboring hair salon and never checked on the child, prosecutors said. She was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
In 2016, Carroll County father Asa North admitted to drinking on the day he was supposed to watch his two little girls. He left them inside a hot SUV, unintentionally, prosecutors said, but he was still charged with second-degree murder and cruelty to children.
North is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence, to be followed by 10 years on probation.
In 2017, Lillian Stone of south Fulton County was charged with malice murder after surveillance video exposed contradictions in statements given to police after the death of her 3-year-old son, left strapped inside his car heat for seven hours. Stone is still awaiting trial.
A TECHNOLOGICAL SOLUTION?
KidsandCars.org is now focused on lobbying Congress to force automobile makers to implement technology that would alert drivers to children left in vehicles. Some cars, such as Kia’s 2020 Telluride, have introduced a rear-occupant alert, but most have not.
Fennell, the KidsandCars.org president, predicts it will take Congressional action to compel other automakers to follow suit. She points out to anyone willing to listen how some of the most damning evidence introduced against Harris during his trial was later discredited. Jurors heard about a “stench of death” allegedly emanating from his vehicle right after authorities responded. Experts say no such whiff of mortality would’ve existed at that point in the child’s decomposition.
Attorney Carlos Rodriguez, part of Harris’ defense team said, “people’s first impressions are almost impossible to break.”
A HAUNTING VERDICT
Harris, soon to be 40, is serving his sentence at Macon State Prison. For his safety he is held in the solitary confinement wing, which his lawyer says has taken a toll.
“Prison changes you,” Rodriguez said.
Harris is hopeful the appeal of his 2016 murder conviction will be successful. The motion for a new trial alleges that prejudicial testimony admitted by the judge made it an “absolute impossibility” for him to receive a fair trial. It’s still a work in progress and a potential court date is far in the future.
Prosecutors see Harris’ case much differently, of course, and they have convictions on all eight counts on their side. Jurors told the state’s lawyers afterwards that there was near-unanimity among them from the beginning regarding Harris’ guilt.
Rodriguez said he wishes jurors could have gotten to know Harris, who he describes as caring and patient man.
“He still has that optimism, still has his faith, still has his sharpness,” he said. “Ross is going to be another chapter in that book of wrongly convicted persons who is eventually found innocent.”