At first glance, the death of Cooper Harris looked like any other horrifying, legitimately accidental cases involving children and hot car deaths.
Harris, who was 22 months old, died an agonizing death in 2014, when his father, Justin Ross Harris, left him in an SUV for seven hours to go to work at Home Depot. It was June, and outside temperatures reached the 80s.
Roughly half of such deaths involve parents who simply forget the child is there. Another 30 percent involve children who become trapped in cars without anyone noticing. The rest result when parents intend to leave the child in the car, failing to understand how hot cars can get inside (a car can reach an interior temperature of 110 degrees even when it’s 60 degrees outside). Some 800 American children have died this way since 1990—almost 40 this year alone—and just over a quarter of the cases result in criminal charges.
Harris was sentenced yesterday to life in prison plus 32 years, without parole, after a jury found that he left his child there to die deliberately. He was convicted on all eight counts against him, including one count of malice murder (Georgia’s first-degree murder equivalent), two counts of cruelty to children and two counts of felony murder, which essentially means that even if Cooper’s death was an accident, Harris is still responsible.
What has made this case particularly memorable, however, are the details: The remaining three counts against Harris are sexting with a female minor, including asking her to send him naked pictures, and sending her dick pics, including some of this activity on the day of Cooper’s death.
“The sexting in general worked against him,” Ronn Blitzer, a former New York prosecutor and editor at LawNewz, told me. “All the testimony in the world from day-care workers saying how friendly Harris was couldn’t turn him into a sympathetic figure. The guy had multiple extramarital affairs and knowingly asked a high school girl to send him pictures of her genitals. Even if Cooper’s death was an accident, Harris is still a dirtbag.”
Hot car cases have wildly different outcomes in court depending on a number of different circumstances surrounding the deaths: A college professor who forgot his 10-month-old son in the car was never prosecuted, while a horse groomer with an IQ of 74 who left his 9-month-old daughter in a car on purpose—with the window cracked, not realizing it would still get too hot—spent 20 years in prison and was deported.
The reasons aren’t clear. “What we have found is that there is really no rhyme or reason to whether a parent is charged or not and if they’re convicted,” writes Amber Rollins, director of Kids and Cars, a safety advocacy group. “You can have two exact same circumstances in two separate cases, and in one case a parent might not be charged at all and in another case the parents are charged to the full extent of the law.”
The most thorough study of such cases was by Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten, whose feature on the phenomenon, “Fatal Distraction,” won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010. Weingarten challenged years of public vilification and misunderstanding of these accidents by pointing out a few essential aspects:
1) These cases were virtually unheard of until the 1990s, when car-safety experts recommended putting kids in the back seat because of the danger of airbags to their undeveloped frames. Moreover, they recommended putting infants in rear-facing seats to further protect them in crashes.
2) Hot-car deaths happen with people in all walks of life, across all socioeconomic backgrounds, and often with parents who have no criminal history or history of negligence or abuse.
Or as Weingarten put it: “What kind of person forgets a baby? The wealthy do, it turns out. And the poor, and the middle class. Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it. Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers. It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate. In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist. A postal clerk. A social worker. A police officer. An accountant. A soldier. A paralegal. An electrician. A Protestant clergyman. A rabbinical student. A nurse. A construction worker. An assistant principal. It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef. It happened to a pediatrician. It happened to a rocket scientist.”
3) These are typically truly accidents. And what nearly all the cases of true accidents have in common is a break in routine combined with sleeplessness of early parenting. Something changes in the routine of the parent who, genuinely distracted by a work issue, profound sleeplessness or a fight with a spouse, drives right past daycare, goes to work, parks the car and forgets.
In one particularly brutal case Weingarten cites, a man had left his toddler in the car and gone into work. From inside, the child had managed to trigger the car’s motion-detector alarm three times. The father looked out the window onto the parking lot, saw nothing suspicious, and deactivated it.
Weingarten details the wrecked lives of parents who make this terrible mistake — and gets into the memory science of why this happens. In short, the morning routine so many parents embark on to transport a child from home to caregiver is done so often that it eventually happens on autopilot. Most of the time it “works like a symphony,” but when “stress, emotion, lack of sleep and change in routine” combine, the whole thing can go off the rails.
Weingarten notes that cases with prior histories of abuse and neglect tend to result in prison sentences. But not always—and sometimes cases that look like pure accidents end up with the parent facing manslaughter or murder charges. And even when they don’t, the parent faces extreme vitriol from a public that can’t fathom how any good parent could let this happen.
All of which brings us back to Harris, whose life sentence-plus resulted from numerous things the jury felt didn’t support the idea that this was a tragic accident. For starters, Harris didn’t seem to grieve his child’s death. A witness said Harris’s response to discovering Cooper seemed overly emotional, like “bad acting.” And Marietta criminal defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that “[the jury] expected him to act a certain way. And there’s no explanation why he acted the way he did.” Other witnesses said he didn’t call for help upon discovering his dead child, and that the police interview video showed Harris “go from wailing and crying one moment to being chatty and calm the next.”
Home Depot surveillance footage also showed that Harris actually returned to his car to toss some light bulbs in he’d purchased during lunch. He didn’t notice Cooper in the back seat, even though the child’s head should have been visible, according to the prosecution’s re-creation. And when Harris’s wife, Leanna, went to pick up Cooper from daycare and was told he wasn’t there, she allegedly told witnesses, “Ross must have left him in the car… There’s no other explanation. Ross must have left him in the car.”
Then there were Harris’s internet searches and his digital behavior. He texted his teenage sexting partner that he loved his son but that they “both need escapes,” and allegedly made internet searches involving death, including a visit to a forum about living a child-free life. Prosecutors successfully argued that Harris was living a double life, and the underage sexting and his other sexual exploits, including sex with prostitutes, suggested he was an unhappy man who used his car as a weapon so he could be a freewheeling bachelor again.
It seems so cut-and-dried, but it isn’t. Blitzer, the former prosecutor, wrote an op-ed on LawNewz calling into question the evidence around Harris’s alleged incriminating internet searches. He writes:
Turns out that there was no evidence that Harris searched for hot car deaths, animals in hot cars or living child-free. What he did do was receive a link to a Reddit message board called “Child Free,” that he responded to by saying “Grossness.” He also twice accessed a video that he was sent about a veterinarian discussing the effect of heat on animals, but there was no evidence that he searched for it, or that he even watched the whole thing. On top of that, police hired a consultant to examine Harris’ online activity, and the lead detective didn’t even discuss his findings when the examination was over.
Evidence was shown that Harris did search about surviving in prison, Blitzer writes, but that doesn’t prove guilt and could be more related to his sexting with a minor than plotting to kill his own child. “The jury learned that Harris was certainly a sleaze who cheated on his wife, but they also learned that he told his mistresses that he wouldn’t leave his wife because he loved his son too much,” Blitzer wrote.
Blitzer adds to me over the phone that ultimately, it seemed like “the jury wanted to see someone pay a price no matter what,” and that “Harris caused his son’s death, whether it was intentional or not. For some jurors, that may have been enough to want to punish him.”
He believes the sexting charges were appropriate, but that “the strongest elements of the case against Harris were emotional, not factual. Therein lies my problem with the verdict. I don’t think the prosecution presented nearly enough evidence to prove Harris’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. If this was a civil case where the standards are lower, I might agree that it’s more likely than not that he did it on purpose. But to convict him of murder beyond a reasonable doubt? I just don’t think the evidence was there.”
But in cases of parents who leave their children to die, it’s impossible to imagine leaving emotion out of it. A CNN legal analyst said the Harris verdict will embolden prosecutors to pursue these cases more aggressively in the future. That makes sense for murderers, but for the majority of these parents, prison could scarcely compete with the devastation they already feel.
For his Washington Post piece, Weingarten got in touch with an electrician in Virginia who had forgotten his son outside in the car while he slept inside after a long shift. He had never been prosecuted for the accident, but since then, his wife had left him and he still hadn’t recovered from his mistake. Asked if he was thankful he hadn’t been prosecuted, he answered, “Not for myself, for my parents. Doesn’t matter what they do to me. Nothing I don’t do to myself every day.”