While the mother of a Cobb toddler who died after being locked in the family’s SUV has not been charged or even identified as a suspect in her son’s death, new evidence released Sunday suggests investigators think she may have been involved, several attorneys following the case have told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
“The mother needs to get herself a lawyer,” said Dunwoody defense attorney Esther Panitch in light of Leanna Harris’ admission that, like her husband, she had recently researched “car deaths and how (they) occur,” according to a Cobb County Police search warrant.
Ross Harris was arrested and charged with felony murder and cruelty to children five hours after he told Cobb police he had mistakenly left 22-month-old Cooper in his child seat for more than seven hours on a day when the high temperature approached 90 degrees.
That same night, police interviewed Leanna Harris at the couple’s home in unincorporated Marietta. It’s unclear when the web searchers were conducted, and legal experts not connected to the case say that’s crucial.
“The timing is critical,” defense lawyer Steve Sadow told the AJC. “If the searches occurred within 24 to 48 hours of the child’s death, that’s too coincidental to ignore.”
Sadow said it’s likely investigators now think the child’s death may have been intended and, if so, Ross Harris might not have acted alone.
Police aren’t saying.
“The chain of events that occurred in this case do not point toward simple negligence and evidence will be presented to support this allegation,” Cobb Police Chief John Houser said in a statement released Wednesday. Neither the police nor the Cobb County Distict Attorney’s Office has spoken about the high-profile case in a substantial way since, leaving the public only piecemeal information from which to draw conclusions.
That could change Thursday, when a probable cause and bond hearing is scheduled in Cobb Magistrate Court. Ross Harris has been incarcerated without bond since June 18, the day Cooper died.
On Saturday, the 33-year-old IT specialist spoke briefly at his son’s funeral in Tuscaloosa, thanking supporters for standing behind him.
Leanna Harris also spoke at the service, an appearance which experts say won’t do her any favors if prosecutors decide to bring charges against her.
“It does not play well,” said Gwinnett defense attorney Christine Koehler, pointing to media reports that Harris showed little emotion while eulogizing her son.
The AJC was in attendance when the 30-year-old dietitian, who grew up in the Tuscaloosa area, told mourners at University Church of Christ Saturday that even if she could bring her son back, she wouldn’t.
“He’s in the most peaceful, wonderful place there is,” Leanna Harris said.
Koehler and Sadow agreed that Harris shouldn’t be talking publicly or to police.
“If she keeps talking she’s the worst witness for herself,” Sadow said. “I would’ve advised her to limit her comments at the funeral.”
The case against Leanna Harris, if there is one, remains largely uncertain and wholly circumstantial. But as Koelher points out, “more people are in prison due to circumstantial evidence than direct evidence.”
Considered singularly, the evidence might not be that damning against the Harris’. Viewed collectively, however, “it’s definitely suspicious,” Panitch said.
Not that it would be easy to build a case against Leanna Harris, at least with the evidence that’s presently been made available.
“They need to prove not only that she knew, but did she suggest it. Was there collusion?” Panitch said.
Unless there were emails or text messages spelling that out, prosecutors would seemingly need one spouse to turn on the other.
“If they’re going to try to make a case against both of them, one would think they’d need one of them to roll over,” Koehler said.
That appears unlikely, based on Leanna Harris’ comments Saturday.
“Am I angry with Ross? Absolutely not,” she said. “It never crossed my mind. Ross is and was a wonderful father.”
And there’s much about this case that’s still unknown. For one, did Ross Harris regularly drive his son to day care, located about two miles from his office at Home Depot’s headquarters on Cumberland Parkway? Was that part of his routine?
Then’s there’s the timing of the Internet searches. Regardless of when they occurred, they present yet another question.
“If (leaving a child unattended in a hot car) was such compelling concern to the parents, why didn’t they do something about it?” said University of Georgia law professor Ron Carlson, noting there are products available that are designed to prevent such mistakes.
Koehler, on vacation in Cape Cod when contacted by The AJC, said even there, more than 1,100 miles from Atlanta, everyone’s talking about the case, waiting for the next shoe to drop.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.