Forgetful Father or Felony Murderer?

Justin Ross Harris says his young son's death in a hot car was accidental. Prosecutors say it was murder.

Photo by Sherry Ezhuthachan (Flickr)

Prosecutors in Cobb County, Georgia are portraying Justin Ross Harris as an unfaithful husband who wanted to return to a child-free lifestyle.  Yet, his attorney describes him as a loving, “doting dad that kissed his son every time he put him in the car.”  Harris’s friends and family reinforce this “caring dad” persona by saying that Justin Harris constantly bragged about his young boy.

Currently, Harris faces multiple charges, including malice murder, felony murder, and cruelty to children.

According to law enforcement, Harris left his twenty-two-month-old son, Cooper, in the backseat of his car for almost eight hours in temperatures that reached into the high eighties.  Harris claims he mistakenly thought he dropped his son off at daycare on June 18, 2014, only to discover an unresponsive Cooper still in his car seat at the send of an eight-hour workday.  According to the medical examiner’s office, Cooper died of hyperthermia, which is when the body essentially overheats and loses its ability to function.

Currently, Harris faces multiple charges, including malice murder, felony murder, and cruelty to children.  The malice murder charge, as defined by Georgia law, requires a showing that Harris intentionally left Cooper to die in the hot car. Harris’s wife, Leanna Harris, who has not been charged in this case, claims that she has been supportive of her husband and has not doubted his innocence from the beginning.  Mrs. Harris has emphasized, from the outset, that this is nothing more than a tragic accident, and that her husband did not intend to leave Cooper in the car.

Many factors exist to show that Cooper’s death may not have been an accident.

Nonetheless, there is evidence has been presented that tends to show otherwise.  Unlike many previous cases where tragic accidents have occurred because parents are simply negligent, stressed out, or forgetful, many factors exist here to show that Cooper’s death may not have been an accident.

First, there were financial issues between Cooper’s two parents.  The parents had taken out two life insurance policies for Cooper and had also discussed with family members the logistics of cashing in those policies.

Second, Justin and Leanne Harris both had questionable internet search histories.  Leanne admitted to police she researched hot car deaths and how they occur.  Justin also told police that he had researched child deaths in vehicles, specifically what temperatures are optimal for death to occur.

Lastly, the parents were experiencing relationship problems.  On the day Cooper died, Harris was sending nude pictures of himself to minors while his son sat in the car.  Harris was also charged for these crimes along with the murder-related charges.  Defense Attorney Maddox Kilgore, however, emphasizes “the lewd texting doesn’t constitute evidence of his client’s alleged wanton disregard for his son.”

Harris tried to cover his tracks by telling members of the public the child had just been choking.

Moreover, the morning routine for both father and son consisted of Justin dropping Cooper off at daycare, frequently visiting a Chick-fil-A restaurant beforehand.  This particular Chick-fil-A is just over half a mile from the daycare that Cooper attended.  Also eye-raising is the fact that Harris would have been able to see Cooper over the car seat during the drive, since Cooper had overgrown the rear-facing car seat.

Furthermore, it seemed to onlookers like Harris was not sincerely upset when he found his deceased son, acting as if he was trying to hyperventilate on purpose.  At the scene, “…instead of confessing to the tragic blunder – and admitting his baby had been dead for hours – it has been claimed Harris tried to cover his tracks by telling members of the public the child had just been choking.”  There were even witnesses who claim that Harris tried to perform CPR on the child.  Police further stated that Harris accessed the same car through the driver’s side door during lunch, mere hours before Cooper was found dead, insinuating that Harris should have seen Cooper at that point.

For his alleged crimes, Harris was indicted by a grand jury in early September.  Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds recently announced that he would not seek the death penalty against Harris after reviewing several factors, including Georgia’s death penalty statute.

While many parents have been charged for negligence or manslaughter in cases like these, experts say they are not aware of a case in which the parent intended to hurt or kill the child.

In the majority of cases in which parents were criminally charged for leaving their child/children in “hot cars,” intent by the parent was rarely found to be present.  Generally, the parent was charged with involuntary manslaughter or negligence, and oftentimes, the judges even reduced their sentence to community service.

Kaleb Layton Laatsch of Gillette, Wyoming left his infant son in his pickup truck while he went to work in August 2011.    He was convicted of misdemeanor child endangerment and faced up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.  Gideon Laatsch survived the incident, but suffered brain damage caused when his internal temperature reached 108 degrees.

Mary Parks also faced criminal charges after leaving her son, Juan Parks, in a hot car in Blacksburg, Virginia.  The charges against her were ultimately dropped. The fact that she went through all of the other consequences of her actions (criminal charges and custody hearings for her second son), on top of Juan’s death, was punishment enough in the eyes of the court.

Kevin Kelly, whose twenty-one-month-old daughter Frances passed away under to similar circumstances, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment in Manassas, Virginia.  However, Kelly was spared the lengthy prison sentence and the judge directed him to spend one day a year in jail for seven years and to hold an annual blood drive on the anniversary of his daughter’s death.

On average, there are thirty-eight vehicular hyperthermia deaths per year in the United States.  However, the number of cases that involve criminal intent are almost nonexistent.  Many cases do not even include recklessness of parents, as children often climb into these cars on their own.  While many parents have been charged for negligence or manslaughter in cases like these, experts say they are not aware of a case in which the parent intended to hurt or kill the child.

This would be a landmark case if Justin Harris were found to have had the intent to kill his son.  According to Janette Fennel, who runs, “[w]e’re on this teeter-totter. If it turns out there was intent, then you’re going to have this one case that everybody can refer to and take that idea and apply it to any of these cases.”

If the court finds that Justin Harris did act with malice and intentionally left his son in the car, then his punishment will likely be much more severe than simple negligence or involuntary manslaughter.  He will likely be found guilty of felony murder, malice murder, and child endangerment.

Not surprisingly, the harshest treatment is given to parents or caregivers who intentionally choose to leave children in their cars.  According to a review of statistics by the Associated Press, these family members are nearly twice as likely to serve time than negligent daycare workers or babysitters.  On average, parents or caregivers who intentionally left a child in the car, even without intent to hurt or kill the child, received sentences that were five and a half years longer than those who simply forgot the child was there.

If the court finds that this was simply a tragic accident, Harris will likely be charged with involuntary manslaughter.  It will be punishment enough that he has to live with his simple negligence in that moment for the rest of his life.  However, if the court finds that Harris did act with malice or intent, this case will provide courts with precedent for handling future cases in which parents or caregivers leave their children in cars with the intent to kill.

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About Kruti Patel, Senior Staff Writer (14 Articles)
Kruti Patel is a 2016 graduate, and served as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. She is a Greensboro, North Carolina native. In 2013, Kruti graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a degree in Psychology and a minor in Spanish for the Professions. During the summer of 2014, Kruti worked as a research assistant for Professor Patrick Hetrick researching joint tenancy laws, and at the NC Department of Health and Human Services in the Communications Department. Kruti is worked as Prof. Hetrick’s research assistant and at the NC Hospital Association during her second year of law school.
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