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National
Focus shifts to mother of toddler in hot car death
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Focus shifts to mother of toddler in hot car death

Focus shifts to mother of toddler in hot car death
Photo Credit: Kelly J. Huff / Pool / Marietta Daily Journal / AP
Leanna Harris, wife of Justin Ross Harris, the father of a toddler who died after police say he was left in a hot car for about seven hours, looks on during her husband's bond hearing in Cobb County Magistrate Court on July 3, 2014, in Marietta, Ga. Harris, who police say intentionally killed his toddler son by leaving the boy inside a hot SUV, was exchanging nude photos with women the day his son died and had looked at websites that advocated against having children, a detective testified Thursday. At that same hearing, a judge refused to grant bond for Harris, meaning he will remain in jail.

Focus shifts to mother of toddler in hot car death

Leanna Harris’ husband, prosecutors alleged Thursday, had two sides: Churchgoing family man and another, darker persona, one that compelled Ross Harris to knowingly leave their 22-month-old son to die, locked inside a sweltering SUV.

Based on her own, sometimes confounding words, along with evidence disclosed at her spouse’s probable cause hearing Thursday, many are wondering whether there’s another side to Leanna Harris.

>> RELATED: Prosecutors: Father was sexting while child sat in hot car

The 30-year-old dietitian, who two years ago moved to Georgia from Tuscaloosa, Ala., has not been charged with any crime. But police have disclosed that, like her husband, she had researched children dying in hot vehicles prior to her son Cooper’s death, telling officers it was her “worst fear.” On average, 38 kids die each year after being trapped inside automobiles, according to KidsAndCars.org.

Investigators described her behavior the day of her son Cooper’s death as odd, if not suspicious.

When informed by workers at her son’s day care facility that Cooper had never been dropped off, she calmly responded, “Ross must have left him in the car. There’s no other explanation,” according to Cobb County Police Det. Phil Stoddard’s testimony Thursday.

Then, when reunited with her husband at police headquarters after he had been charged with murder, Leanna Harris asked him, “Did you say too much?” according to Stoddard.

“There isn’t enough to make her a co-conspirator … yet,” said criminal defense lawyer Esther Panitch.

>> RELATED: Photos: Dad accused in son’s hot car death appears in court

Whatever Leanna Harris’ role winds up being in this case — witness, defendant or supportive wife — prosecutors and the public are taking note of her public actions. What they’ve seen so far is stoicism that seems at odds with what has become a public tragedy.

She has expressed little emotion throughout. At Thursday’s hearing, she stared blankly ahead, chewing gum as prosecutors delivered one bombshell after another.

When she called home June 18 with the grim news of Cooper’s death, her mother could be overheard on the phone: “Why aren’t you crying? Why aren’t you reacting?”

Her response, according to Stoddard: “I must be in shock.”

Then there was her eulogy at Cooper’s funeral last Saturday in Tuscaloosa. To those who don’t know her, Leanna Harris’ comment that she wouldn’t bring her son back, even if she could, seemed suspicious.

>> RELATED: Police: Father who left child in hot car charged with murder

“He’s in the most peaceful, wonderful place there is,” Leanna Harris said.

But the 250 or so mourners who gathered at University Church of Christ gave her two rounds of applause, and Harris’ statement is not unusual among the deeply religious who believe the afterlife is God’s greatest gift.

Still, it’s clear, according to veteran legal observers, that police are looking at Leanna Harris’ potential culpability in her son’s death. On Thursday, Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds said the investigation continues and “much work remains,” though he offered no details on where the probe may be headed.

“Knowledge of a crime isn’t prosecutable. A cover-up is,” Panitch said.

But if, as many increasingly believe, her husband ends up facing more significant murder charges, prosecutors may seek to use Leanna Harris as a witness. In Georgia, the spousal privilege shielding a wife from testifying against her husband, and vice-versa, doesn’t apply in cases of domestic violence or death of a child.

>> RELATED: 'I’ve killed our child,' dad screams over tiny body

“She needs to make a deal before the state finds more evidence against her,” Panitch said.

So far, Leanna Harris has remained loyal to her husband of seven years. At Cooper’s funeral, she said she holds no anger toward her husband.

“Ross is and was a wonderful father,” she said. As Ross Harris listened from jail on speaker phone, his wife told him, “I love you and I’m doing this for you.”

It’s unclear whether Leanna Harris knew then of her spouse’s “sexting” habits, first disclosed publicly during Thursday’s hearing. Friends and family shielded her from reporters as she left the courtroom and insist she’s a woman of strong faith who treasured her role as wife and mother. Ross Harris’ half-brother, Randy Michael Baygents, a police officer for nearly two decades, said Thursday had Ross Harris been released on bond he would have returned home.

“What you saw here is what is truly in her,” the Harris’ pastor, David Eldridge, said at Cooper’s funeral. “There is an example here for all of us on how to deal with things.”

>> Read more trending stories

Her eulogy was part memorial, part confessional.

“Some of you might wonder how I’m standing here today and I ask myself the same question,” Leanna Harris said. “I should be crumpled into a pile of tears and snot on the ground. (The Lord) is standing behind me, holding me up.”

She spoke of her difficulties getting pregnant and her awkward teen years.

“Junior high and senior high — they weren’t the happiest times (for me),” she said, listing heartbreaks her son would be spared. “He won’t have to suffer through the death of his (grandparents). He won’t have to suffer through the death of me and Ross.”

In his closing prayer, Eldridge said, “I’m not sure there’s a better testimony to who You are or what You do than Leanna.”

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His thoughtfulness and the one was enough to get me through that most difficult of Seasons in 1983 and I still think about that simple act of kindness after all these years.” -Beau 4. RETURN POLICIES “I worked for a very upscale store and a customer came in to buy a beautiful new boy’s suit. A lot of time and attention went into just the right tailoring for the young man. The next day the suit came back smeared with wedding cake from head to toes. Our no questions ask policy allowed the return. I lost the commission and the suit was thrown in the trash.” - Joyce » RELATED: Safety measures heightened at local shopping centers for Black Friday weekend 5. ADULTS BEHAVING BADLY “The issues were not with the children but with the adults! Fighting over the last toys on the shelf, the color that they absolutely had to have, etc. I wanted to send them all home to bed without supper!” - Barb 6. BLACK FRIDAY RULES “If you don’t know how to play the Black Friday Shopping game, STAY HOME. And please don’t do returns until after the peak sales time.” - Robin 7. “MADNESS” “People getting there early, even before employees, would block our way into store because they thought we were cutting in line.” - Linda 8. RUDE CUSTOMERS “(A customer) kept yelling at me about how horrible and disgusting it was at my store, and how much cheaper everything was at Meijer. I finally said, “Ma’am, if you want to go to Meijer so badly, why don’t you go there? Take a left out of here and it’s 2 miles up the road.” Now doing that could have gotten me in a lot of trouble, but every customer within earshot were regular customers who knew me and knew that I’m not that kind of a person. After I said that and she started to leave, they all started applauding and told me that they would defend me if my manager got mad.” -Michelle 9. STEALING CUSTOMERS “Working retail on Black Friday is like working at a daycare alone with 50+ children and no toys. You will be pushed, spit on, screamed at and they WILL throw things at you. Oh and you’ve been working for 10 hours, haven’t seen your family for the holiday and you don’t get to sleep for another 5 hours. You finally get the opportunity to sit down and eat a granola bar but OH NO! SOMEONE IS STEALING YOU NEED TO GET BACK OUT THERE!” - Kara 10. PUSHY CUSTOMERS “When I was pregnant and working, we gave out $10 gift cards to the first 200 customers. I was assigned a door and when I opened it people shoved me and I got pushed into the door. I locked it and walked away in disgust. I was visibly pregnant but that $10 meant more to them.” - Jennifer 11. CHAOS “The best way to describe it is chaos. Preparation started 2 months in advance.” - Scott 12. MORE STEALING “(Black Friday is like) running in a track meet for 15 hours — people popping off security tags in the fitting rooms and trying to leave store with 10 layers of clothes on.” - Paul 13. TRAMPLING CUSTOMERS “I worked in a large department store in the Upper Valley Mall. I actually watched an older woman get trampled when our store opened for Black Friday. No one stopped to help her, they just ran right over her. We weren’t allowed to leave our position and another clerk had to phone a manager for help. She wasn’t injured, but I’m sure she wouldn’t take part in another Black Friday sale after that.” - Tosha 14. HUNGRY CUSTOMERS “It’s non-stop. You’re constantly busy. I worked alone in a Subway inside of Walmart on Black Friday. I constantly had customers even before I was open! As I was setting up, I had people demanding to come in and leave upset because I wasn’t ready.” - Nina 15. CASHIERS ARE HUMAN “Just remember that we cashiers are human. We have feelings. And we just work there….we don’t make the rules, we don’t set the prices, we don’t control inventory. We ring up your products and process your payment. Please don’t yell at us.” - Amy 16. TOO MANY HORROR STORIES “Too many horror stories to really pick out just one — Primarily customers wanting something that was completely against store policy and blaming me for the policy. One said she wanted my name and was going to report me to the store manager. That’s when I threw my name tag at her and told her to have a happy holiday.” - Dave 17. CALL CENTERS “From a call center perspective, I think the worst is a customer putting their child on the phone so I can tell the child the bad news, that they won’t get that item. Because you know, parents today can’t disappoint their children. Then repeatedly say how I (or we as a company) ruined their Christmas.” - Nikki