Beginning on Monday, a Cobb County jury will be asked to decide whether Justin Ross Harris intentionally killed his son Cooper by leaving him in a sweltering car or whether the 22-month-old’s death was a tragic accident.
The June 18, 2014, incident has captivated metro Atlantans and parents across the nation who have thrashed out what led to the toddler’s death and what could have possessed Harris to forget his son for nearly eight hours.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters have followed the case since Harris was arrested and charged with murder in the summer of 2014. On March 29, the first episode of Breakdown, an AJC podcast series, explored the circumstances of Cooper’s death at length and offer listeners perspectives from national experts and individuals close to the case. Continuing with the second episode on April 5, the podcast will include four installments on iTunes and other podcast platforms.
Here’s what you can expect:
Ahead of the revealing podcast and the April 11 trial, here are 5 things to know about the case of Justin Ross Harris:
On the morning of his son’s death, Ross Harris sent a text to a woman over an anonymous social network called Whisper that read: “I love my son and all. But we both need escapes.” The discovery of thousands of sexual texts, sexting and extramarital affairs has been devastating. In February, Harris was indicted on eight charges involving sexually exploiting underage girls. He was accused of possessing lewd photographs of two underage girls, sending nude photos to those girls and one other and engaging in sexually explicit chats with all three. The eight-count indictment includes two counts of sexual exploitation of children and six of disseminating harmful material to a minor. (He will be tried later on these charges.)
Leanna Harris stuck by Ross even after a probable cause hearing in which prosecutors chronicled her husband’s alleged sexual escapades in detail. But just two months before his April murder trial, she filed for divorce in Cobb County Superior Court, saying the couple’s once strong bond was “irretrievably broken.” The divorce became final as the trial date drew near. Even so, Leanna Taylor, as she is now known, is expected to testify voluntarily as a defense witness. She still believes that her son's death was a terrible accident, that her ex-husband could never have harmed their child in that way, her attorney says.
In the weeks following Cooper’s death, several friends said the Harrises loved each other and adored their son. In their eyes, Cooper’s death was a tragedy that devastated both parents. Though prosecutors have painted his online searches of a child-free life and browsing videos of hot car scenarios as motives, friends say Ross, an avid researcher, simply had a quirky, inquisitive nature. According to Billy Kirkpatrick, who counts himself as Ross’ best friend, Ross is endlessly curious. “He’s a fact-checker kind of guy,” Kirkpatrick said. “If he hears about something on TV or in conversation, he likes to read up on the topic in online articles, videos and blogs. He is always researching new subjects and telling others about what he has learned.”
Details released shortly after Cooper Harris' death cast further doubt on the story Harris told Cobb County police. Harris originally told police his SUV with his son inside was parked unattended all day. Harris went out to lunch with friends and stopped to buy light bulbs at Home Depot. An arrest warrant later stated he opened the driver-side door of his Hyundai Tuscon, placed the light bulbs in the vehicle, and then went back to work. “I understand that tragic accidents similar to this one do occur and in most cases the parent simply made a mistake that cost them the life of their child,” Cobb County Police Chief John Houser said during a press conference.
Dueling narratives have characterized the defense motion to suppress all evidence of Harris’ extramarital dalliances on the grounds that such evidence is irrelevant to the charges against him. But even as lead defense attorney Maddox Kilgore fought to keep statements made by his client’s paramours out of the trial, he said such testimony might actually hurt the prosecution’s case. “In a nutshell, they’re arguing that any explicit sexual communications or acts constitute evidence of murder,” Kilgore said. “From what we’ve seen, there’s no evidence of him wanting to commit violence, no history of neglect or indifference.” Georgia State University law professor Jessica Gabel added Harris' actions on that June day "might show reckless disregard, but without a smoking gun it will be difficult to prove malice.”