Father’s legal fate still far from clear

Justin Ross Harris now sits in a Cobb County jail charged with the murder of his 22-month-old son.

But Cobb’s top prosecutor said Thursday he does not yet know whether this is a true case of murder or, as he put it, a “terrible, tragic accident.”

Police investigators obtained arrest warrants for murder and child cruelty against Harris after laying out the facts they had before a Cobb magistrate Wednesday night. Once the police investigation is complete, it will be up to Cobb District Attorney Vic Reynolds to decide whether to seek a criminal indictment from the grand jury.

The heart-wrenching scene that unfolded Wednesday in the Akers Mill Square parking lot has played out in similarly horrifying cases nationwide. But these cases have received starkly different treatment when placed in the hands of local prosecutors.

Reynolds said he hopes his office gets Ross’s case quickly once a thorough police investigation is conducted. “The defendant needs to know and the community needs to know” exactly how Cooper Harris came to die, he said.

Reynolds said his options range from not pursuing criminal charges to presenting evidence to the grand jury and asking for a murder indictment.

“My gut tells me is that this could be a terrible, terrible, tragic accident, it could be reckless conduct that leads to an involuntary manslaughter charge, or there could be additional facts about what happened that I don’t now know that could make it a murder case,” Reynolds said.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if there are additional facts the police know that everybody else doesn’t know,” he said.

Clayton County prosecutors sought murder charges against a former day care center owner and her daughter for the death of 2-year-old Jazmin Green, who died June 20, 2011, after being left alone in a van on a sweltering day.

In May, a Clayton jury declined to find Marlo Maria Fallings and Quantabia Shantell Hopkins guilty of Jazmin’s murder and instead convicted them of involuntary manslaughter, a misdemeanor. Hopkins was also convicted of deprivation of a child, a felony.

“Jazmin’s death was a tragic mistake,” Hopkins’ lawyer, Bruce Harvey, said. “But it didn’t rise to the level of criminal negligence. Nobody wanted this to happen.”

Under Georgia law, a person can be convicted of misdemeanor involuntary manslaughter if they unintentionally cause someone’s death while acting in an unlawful manner. In Hopkins’ case, Harvey noted, the jury also found her guilty of another misdemeanor — reckless conduct.

The case in Cobb could be similar to his client’s, Harvey said. “On the face of it, and based only on what we know now, he appears to be way overcharged with murder.”

In 2008, electrician Andrew Culpepper, after working a graveyard shift, picked up his son from his parents’ house and drove to his Portsmouth, Va., home to get some sleep. Only after Culpepper woke up did he realize he’d left his son in his car. The child died.

Commonwealth Attorney Earle Mobley said he chose not to prosecute Culpepper because there was no evidence he knew his son was in his car when he got out and went inside his house.

“I know we’re talking about a perfectly innocent child,” Mobley said. “And anytime something like this happens, just imagine how much the parent is already punishing himself.”

Mobley said he had a similar case about three years later. Once again, he said, he chose not to prosecute the parent.

“It’d be different if a mother had driven to a store, left her child in the car, said she’d only be a minute, but then ran into a friend and began talking or decided to eat lunch and then came back and found the child dead,” Mobley said. “In that circumstance, it was clear they were aware they’d left the child behind in the car.”

Barbara Morgan, a former Aiken County, S.C., solicitor, prosecuted a woman who locked her 15-month-old son, Zachary, in her car for nine hours in 2006, causing his death by heat stroke. The mother, Karla Edwards, is now serving a 20-year prison sentence.

Even though the temperature was 73 degrees that day, investigators said the temperature inside the car could have climbed to 140 degrees.

“This was so horrible,” Morgan said Thursday, adding that she regretted having to think about the case once again. “You can’t always say, ‘Oops, I didn’t mean to.’ It depends on the facts. This wasn’t an ‘Oops, I didn’t mean to’ situation.”