Fifteen days after a Cobb County father left his 22-month-old son inside an SUV for hours, testimony inside a packed courtroom Thursday revealed startling new details in the investigation of the child’s death.
Some in the courtroom were visibly shaken to hear contradictory portrayals of the man who said he accidentally left his son in his car seat for seven hours. And though some testimony hinted at the possibility of additional charges in the case, the father’s attorney questioned evidence against his client.
When the three-hour probable cause hearing ended, Justin Ross Harris was denied bond and returned to jail. His wife, holding back tears, was surrounded by family members and friends as she left the courtroom, avoiding any questions.
Magistrate Judge Frank Cox mentioned the possibility of a death-penalty case for the man accused of killing young Cooper on June 18.
It was the testimony from a Cobb County police detective that offered the most new information on the toddler’s last day, as well as his father’s character.
While his 22-month-old son was in his car seat in the backseat of his family’s SUV, a Cobb County father was allegedly sexting underage girls and went to lunch with two college friends, according to testimony Thursday afternoon. Harris told police he accidentally left his son in the SUV while he worked and only realized the boy was in the backseat in the minutes after leaving work, shortly after 4 p.m.
By the time Harris realized his son was still in his car seat, Cooper had likely been dead more than four hours, Detective Phil Stoddard testified. Investigators later determined Harris and his wife were having marital troubles.
Maddox Kilgore, attorney for Harris, argued that there was no evidence that the father intentionally left his young son in the family’s SUV for seven hours, and the arrest warrant should be dismissed.
“It’s not even criminal negligence enough to support a misdemeanor,” Kilgore told the court.
Two longtime friends of Harris both testified that nothing seemed out of the ordinary while they were with him on the day the toddler died. One friend, Alex Hall, testified he drove the three to get lunch and run an errand before dropping Harris off at his SUV, still parked at work.
Harris’ half-brother, Randy Michael Baygents, a police officer for nearly two decades, testified that Harris had solid ties to the community and should be released on bond.
“He’s a loving father,” he said. “He loved his son very much. He’s a good dad.”
In cross examination, the prosecutor told Baygents that his brother had been sexting underage girls.
“In law enforcement, we sometimes find out that people we know we really don’t know?” he said.
“Sometimes,” Baygents replied.
Kilgore told the court the child’s death was an accident and that charges should be dropped.
“An accident doesn’t become a crime because the results are catastrophic,” Kilgore said.
But Judge Frank Cox disagreed, ruling there was probable cause to hold Harris at the Cobb County jail and denied him bond.
According to Stoddard’s testimony, Harris watched videos on the Internet about deaths in hot cars five days before Cooper’s death. Stoddard testified for more than an hour, providing new details about the day Cooper died, as well as Harris’ personal life.
On the morning of the toddler’s death, Harris and his son ate breakfast at a Vinings Chick-fil-A, where Cooper was seen alert and happy, according to testimony. It was Harris’ normal routine to take his son to the daycare center at the Home Depot corporate headquarters, according to police. But after breakfast June 18, Harris drove instead to his office, located about a half-mile away from the restaurant.
Later the same day, Harris texted his wife, Leanna, to ask when she would be picking up “his buddy” from daycare. Leanna went to the daycare center that afternoon, but was told by daycare staff that Cooper had never been dropped off that morning, Stoddard said.
“Ross must’ve left him in the car,” Leanna Harris said in front of witnesses at the daycare, according to Stoddard.
Meanwhile, Ross Harris had left work and driven about five minutes when he said he realized his son was in the backseat, arrest warrants state. He drove into the parking lot of an Akers Mills Road shopping center, got Cooper out of the car and attempted to revive him. Harris didn’t call 911, Stoddard said. But instead, a witness at the scene did.
Leanna Harris was questioned, along with her husband, by investigators the evening of Cooper’s death. No charges were filed against her.
After learning of her son’s death, Leanna Harris showed no real emotion, Stoddard testified. Witnesses have said that Ross Harris was very upset after pulling into the parking lot. But some witness’ accounts differ, Stoddard said.
Harris didn’t tell police while being questioned that he left work for lunch, a detective testified. But investigators reviewed surveillance video from the Home Depot satellite office, where Harris worked, Stoddard testified.