Portrait of Leanna Taylor, who sat for an interview with the AJC and Channel 2 Action News in Birmingham. (AJC image)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Justin Ross Harris’ ex-wife: ‘I don’t believe he planned the murder of our child’

Even now, Cooper’s grave still lacks a marker

All she has left of Cooper now are photos, some videos and the tattoo she had burned into her foot with Cooper’s name and an image of his footprint. Her 22-month-old son died after his father locked him inside the family SUV for roughly seven hours on a June day in 2014.

Cooper Harris’ name and footprint are tattooed into Leanna Harris’ instep. Cooper was 22 months old when he died in June 2014. (Branden Camp / For the AJC)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“I wish I would have acted on these suspicions,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And maybe I would’ve found these things. And obviously if I had found them, I could have left him and I could still have my son.”

» Photos: Key moments in the Ross Harris case

» Full second season of our “Breakdown” podcast

Harris was found guilty on all counts, including malice murder, in November and was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole on Dec. 5.

“I don’t believe he planned the murder of his child – our child – I don’t believe that,” Taylor said. “… I don’t think he deserves to be in prison for the rest of his life.”

Taylor, 32, says she has tried to move on from the nightmare that still dominates her life. She divorced Ross Harris just before his murder trial began and now lives in northwest Alabama, where she has a new boyfriend.

The idea of having another child both appeals to and terrifies her.

“I want that because I’ve always wanted to be a mother, and I enjoyed being Cooper’s mom very much,” she said. “And I always wanted to have more than one child. But it is a difficult thing to think about. It’s scary.

“When you’ve experienced every parent’s worst nightmare, to think about having another child and that fear of something happening again and that constant worry of wanting to keep them safe. For me it’s going to be 10 times worse than the average parent.

“I think about it a lot. I think about what kind of mother I would be to another child. Will I be over-protective? Will I be overbearing? Will I not want to let them out of my sight? Will I let anybody else take care of them?”

A portrait of Leanna Taylor, ex-wife of Justin Ross Harris, after her interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News at a Birmingham hotel. (Branden Camp / For the AJC)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

‘2½ years of silence for me’

The AJC interviewed Taylor at a Birmingham hotel with Channel 2 Action News on Feb. 10, a day on which she also spoke with ABC News’ “20/20.” Aside from her testimony at her ex-husband’s trial, these were some of her first public statements since her son’s funeral. Her attorney, Lawrence Zimmerman, kept a watchful eye on the exchange.

In a wide-ranging, occasionally emotional interview, Taylor said she knows there are some who continue to believe she was complicit in a crime that continues to be dissected and debated.

» Full coverage of the Justin Ross Harris case

“It’s been 2½ years of silence for me, not being able to tell my side of the story,” Taylor said. “Not being able to defend myself in some ways. And not being able to talk about my son.” 

Photos of the happy little boy who never knew a stranger line the walls of Taylor’s home in Muscle Shoals, Ala. Cooper is always in her thoughts.

“I want to try to restore Cooper’s legacy,” she said. “He was lost in the scandal that was the trial. And because of everything that has happened and the way things have played out, he will always – right now, he’s known as the baby whose father planned to kill him. …

“He’s seen as a child that wasn’t loved and wasn’t wanted, and that just wasn’t true” — Taylor breaks down at this point — “and I don’t want people to think of my son that way. So part of it is trying to restore that part of Cooper that was lost.”

‘As lambs to a slaughter’

Taylor recalled how the horror of her son’s death turned into another kind of horror less than two weeks later.

Surrounded by friends and family, she entered a Cobb County courtroom in July 2014 for a probable-cause hearing for Ross Harris. She expected to leave with her husband.

But after that hearing, amid revelations of marital infidelity, sexting with underage girls and allegedly incriminating web searches, police made it clear that Harris not only killed his son but did so deliberately.

And Taylor was no longer just a grieving mother. To many who listened to the lead detective’s testimony, she was now a suspect.

As the couple spoke in a police interview room on the night of Cooper’s death, Taylor asked Harris a question that made many think she had conspired with her husband to kill their son: “Did you say too much?” 

Taylor said in her AJC interview that she asked that partly because she couldn’t understand what was happening and partly because her former husband had a habit of trying to prove he was the smartest guy in the room.

“Not that either of us had anything to hide — I can see how it can be portrayed that way — but knowing who Ross was, and knowing that he would talk to a wall about nothing, I just didn’t understand,” she said.

There was no question how damaging the probable cause hearing was.

“We have described that within the inner circle of my family as lambs to a slaughter,” Taylor said. “We had no idea what it was going to be like, no idea what we were walking into. Media-wise, the things that ended up being said by detectives. It was just one more punch.”

In this video screenshot, Leanna Taylor, ex-wife of Justin Ross Harris, speaks to AJC reporters in Birmingham on Feb. 10.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

‘The things he was doing’

Ross Harris and Leanna Taylor first met on a blind date. After it was over, Harris told a friend, “I’m going to marry that girl.”

They wed in 2006. He brought her out of her shell, encouraging her to be more social and calming her when she obsessed about her weight. She gave him structure and encouraged him to return to school and pursue a degree.

But it wasn’t long before problems surfaced in the marriage. In 2008, Harris confessed that he often viewed pornography online. Two years later, she found a text message sent by Harris asking a woman to “show me your (breasts).” 

In 2012, Cooper was born. Ross was by all accounts an attentive and loving father and active in his church. But he also maintained a bizarre secret life that his wife knew nothing about. 

He was not only exchanging nude photos and sexting, he was also meeting up with multiple women for sex — one occasion on the couple’s living room sofa while Leanna was away. This was all disclosed in sordid detail during the murder trial as prosecutors called a parade of women, including a prostitute who had serviced Ross and two underage girls who had engaged in sexually charged chats with him.

Leanna, who said she watched little more than half of the trial from home on a live stream, said the mere revelation that Ross had cheated on her did not come as a shock, given what she’d already discovered. The extent of it, however, was another story.

“The depth of it, yes,” she said. “The things he was doing, absolutely. Under-aged? It’s horrendous.”

In this video screenshot, Leanna Taylors becomes emotional during an interview with AJC reporters in Birmingham Feb. 10.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

‘What if it wasn’t an accident?’

Nevertheless, Taylor claims she didn’t go to the trial to defend Harris, only to tell the truth — that her ex was “a wonderful father” who did not view their son as a burden.

“What I saw was a very engaged, involved father who wanted to be with his child, who wanted to spend time with his son,” she said.

She conceded, however, there were times when she did wonder whether the police and the prosecution were right.

“When you’re going through something like this you have to consider possibilities that you’re wrong,” she said. “I’ve definitely spent a lot of time thinking about that. Well, what if? What if it wasn’t an accident? I was never able to settle on anything on but it being an accident … because I have too much first-hand experience of him as a father.”

Harris’ serial infidelities were his undoing, Taylor said.

“That’s why they went the direction they went,” she said. “This horrible accident happened. And then in the process they find out about all this. It looks very bad. It set him up to not appear to be a trustworthy individual.”

After the trial, lead Cobb County prosecutor Chuck Boring essentially cleared Taylor of any criminal wrongdoing, saying in an interview with the AJC, “There’s no evidence in this case to charge her with anything.” But lead detective Phil Stoddard, while on the witness stand, wouldn’t let it go. He offered only a caveat, saying Taylor was not a suspect “at this time.”

Taylor said she has had no choice but to come to terms with law enforcement’s insinuation that she may have been involved and their refusal to admit they were wrong.

“They’re not going to apologize to me. I don’t anticipate it. I don’t expect it,” she said. “They’re not going to come forward and say that they were absolutely wrong about me, because if they come forward and say they were wrong about me there’s a chance they were wrong about Ross.”

‘I may never trust anybody again’

As her trial testimony drew to a close, Taylor’s grief turned to anger.

“He destroyed my life. I’m humiliated,” she told jurors. “I may never trust anybody again, the way that I did. If I never see him again after this day, that’s fine.”

Three months later, Taylor said she feels differently.

“What I said I meant it at the time,” she said. “You know, you say things out of frustration and anger.”

She’s still trying to make sense of the debacle that was her marriage.

“I don’t believe I’d go to the prison and visit him,” she said of Harris, an inmate at Valdosta State Prison. “But if there were a point in time that he was out I think there are a lot of things that need to be said. … I don’t know if that opportunity would ever happen, but there are a lot of things that I never got to say.”

There’s also the questions she never got to ask, including the most basic one: Why did Ross continue to stray?

Cooper’s grave still lacks a marker

Cooper Harris died after his father, Justin Ross Harris, left him in a hot SUV for 7 hours on June 18, 2014.

The tragedy, and the reactions of some people to it, have made it difficult for her to trust anyone, Taylor said.

“You have to earn my trust,” she said, fighting back tears. “And when it’s broken it’s very difficult to get it back.”

Right now she’s focused on preserving her son’s legacy. Taylor plans to put a marker at Cooper’s gravesite, an absence noted by some who still question whether Leanna was culpable in her son’s murder. From behind bars, her former husband has offered input on the marker. Taylor said she plans to honor Harris’ wishes.

“There’s been some communication on that,” she said. “What he would like to have on it. What I would like to have on it.”

Taylor said those who made donations for the marker include people who still have their doubts about Cooper’s mother.

“I understand that not everybody that contributed to that thinks it was an accident,” she said. “I understand not everybody who contributed to that thinks that I’m a good person. …

“I’m OK with that,” she said. “This isn’t about me. It’s about Cooper. It’s about putting down something that he deserves. Having a marker that is beautiful and represents his life.”

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