by Starks Shrink

On June 18, 2014, at the age of 22 months, Cooper Harris succumbed to hyperthermia inside a hot SUV in Atlanta, Georgia, still strapped into his car seat.

coopGeorgia is hot in the summer, and typically starts in early May there. I did my residency at Emory University Hospital and lived very near to where this tragedy occurred, so when I read about the death, I wasn’t all that surprised. In Atlanta, I didn’t even leave my Walkman (yes, Walkman) in the car for the day because the heat was so oppressive and destructive that my REO SpeedWagon tapes were ruined the one time I forgot and left them in my vehicle. Given this, it’s not hard to understand how people could be saddened, but sympathetic, to a man who claims to have forgotten to drop his only son at daycare, leaving him strapped into the car seat that would become his deathbed.

Car deaths of small children are regrettably not uncommon in hot climes. Last year, there were at least 44 on record in the US. Even extremely responsible people can forget their children or underestimate the effect of heat in a closed vehicle. So, when a tragedy like this occurs, people are typically sympathetic to the negligent parent, if only because they know it could have happened to them. DUIs have historically engendered the same feelings in many people because a large percentage of people have driven at least once when intoxicated.

coop3Justin Ross Harris, Cooper’s father, the purportedly forgetful parent who left the child in his hot SUV for nearly 7 hours, was charged not only with child cruelty, but with felony murder. The public was outraged to the point that an online petition, demanding that Cobb County drop the charges, garnered thousands of signatures in just a few days. County officials, however, countered with innuendos that damning evidence would soon be revealed and hinted at allegations that Harris had googled facts about car deaths due to hyperthermia prior to the incident.

Now the public was completely confused. A dead child and an apparently grieving family, but with strong hints from police that the death was intentional. As more information came to light, the evidence seemed increasingly damning to both parents, at least based on what the media chose to report. Social media was on fire with heated discussions and the online petition was soon withdrawn.

At Justin “Ross” Harris’s probable cause and bond hearing last week the prosecution and defense presented their versions of the events, and curiously, it seemed more like a trial than a mere hearing. The prosecution provided circumstantial as well as forensic evidence, while portraying Harris as a murderer who premeditated the death of his child.


The Prosecution’s Case:

coop4Among the forensic evidence provided are security videos which depict Harris’s movements on that fateful day. They show him leaving the fast-food restaurant where he shared breakfast with his son, and then minutes later, arriving at his office about a mile from the restaurant. The visual evidence shows that Harris leaning over to the passenger seat to retrieve a laptop computer before exiting the vehicle. Tapes also show that Harris, contrary to his statements to investigators, returned to the vehicle on his lunch hour, opened the driver side door and deposited a package. Police claim that Cooper’s head would have been plainly visible above his rear-facing car seat at this juncture.

coop7When Harris returned to his office after depositing the package, tapes depict him pausing and turning to watch a man walking near his SUV. At 4:16 PM, after leaving his office, Harris can be seen getting into his vehicle and immediately pulling out of the parking lot. After 6 minutes of travel, he pulled into a shopping mall parking lot, removed Cooper’s body from the car and laid him on the ground. A passerby assisted in attempts to render aid to the child. According to a detective on scene, the interior of the vehicle had a foul stench and the child was in full rigor mortis. The detective also stated that Harris was on his cell phone when police arrived, refused to terminate his conversation, and was so uncooperative with officers that he was cuffed and placed inside a police cruiser. It is noted that Harris was carrying $27,000 worth of life insurance on Cooper.

coop9Those are indisputable facts in the case. Circumstantial evidence is what compelled prosecutors to charge Harris with felony murder and what caused the public to change their opinion about him. Prosecutors demonstrated that prior to Cooper’s death, Justin Harris had googled how long it takes for an animal to die in a hot car and had viewed an online video depicting the rising heat in the interior of a vehicle that was intended to warn the public about potential danger to pets. It was also revealed that he had been “sexting” with as many as 6 women he had made contact with through a dating website, one of whom is a minor, and had even been sexting from his SUV on the morning Cooper died.

coop5The prosecution testified that Justin’s wife, Leanna, indicated that the couple was having marital and financial difficulties due to irresponsibility on Justin’s part. They pointed out that Harris had been passed over for a promotion at his current job, and had not been offered a position he had recently interviewed for at another company. The prosecution additionally brought out the alleged fact that Harris had been visiting a couple of Reddit sub forums, one that hosts death videos, and one dedicated to discussions about the pleasures of child-free life.

They also claim that Leanna was supposed to pick up Cooper from day care and that she went to the day care center after a brief phone conversation with Justin. When she discovered that he wasn’t there, her first reaction was one of horror, and she told others that Justin must have left Cooper in the car. When Harris left his office at 4:16, shortly after his phone conversation with Leanna, he claimed that he was going to a 5:00 movie with friends, despite the facts that he had previously told friends he would be late, and the theater was only a few miles from his office.

The prosecution (and much of the public) concludes from all of these pieces of evidence that Harris had researched how to kill his child and had planned and carried it out on June 18th in order to free himself of the burden of fatherhood, while solving his financial issues at the same time.


Case for the Defense:

Justin Ross HarrisThere could be myriad explanations for the circumstantial evidence, and even the forensic evidence lends itself to various interpretation of Harris’ actions on that day. In my opinion, the prosecution has inadvertently made the defense’s case for them. If I were making the case for the defense, I would not attempt to dispute any of this evidence. What it clearly indicates to me is that Harris is a man with markedly poor impulse control, an unsettling self-absorption, and a disregard for consequences of his actions. He was described as being upset over his work situation, but given that the computer activities that police described occurred on his work computer, he can’t be described as the most conscientious of employees.

coop2Perhaps, both he and his wife had researched car deaths because this wasn’t the first time Harris had inadvertently left Cooper in the car. In fact, despite Leanna’s admissions, comments at the day care center, and some rather bizarre statements at Cooper’s funeral, she has not been charged with anything. Perhaps Harris realized his marriage was in jeopardy and simply visited child-free forums to see what his life would be like if divorced. If I were his defense lawyer, I would give Harris a psychological evaluation with the expectation that a psychologist could testify to his habitual irresponsibility due to poor impulse control, evidence that could be introduced at trial. Although he perhaps has some form of personality disorder, that would not make him guilty of murder; at most, it would make him a poor husband and negligent father, which would tend to move his culpability, at worst, into the realm of some form of negligence-induced manslaughter.

I am not claiming to know what happened on that fateful day, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that this is a tragic accident caused by a habitually negligent man and we, the public, should not rush to judge this man until we’ve heard all the facts and arguments.


frePlease click here to view The Starks Shrink’s Other Posts:

Why Beautiful Murderesses Inflame the Passions of the True Crime Fan

Going Postal Goes Fed-Ex!

How to Raise a Serial Killer in 10 Easy Steps

The Julie Schenecker Tragedy: Negligence, Finger-Pointing and the Death of Children

Luka Magnotta: Man, Boy or Beast?

The Disturbing Truth about Mothers Who Murder Their Children

Teleka Patrick Needed a Psychiatrist, Not a Pastor!

Rehabbing the Wounded Juvenile Will Save Their Souls (and Ours)

Skylar Neese and the Mean Girls Who Killed Her


41 Responses to The Overheating Death of Cooper Harris: Murder or Tragic Accident?

  1. Darcia Helle says:

    I have never been able to get beyond the smell issue. Even if I wanted to give him a pass on all the other evidence pointing at his guilt, I simply can’t understand how any person could open a car door, where a child has been dead in the heat for hours, and not immediately gag.

    • Starks Shrink says:

      It’s almost as thought he is a teenage boy – messaging his friends all day while at work, going to the movies with them, trying to pick up young girls, texting photos of his erect penis? Maybe he didn’t notice the smell because he was so self-absorbed. Ever been in a teenage boy’s bedroom?

      I’m not convinced he’s innocent but when I heard the prosecution lay out their case, it struck me that they had laid out the perfect defense as well.

    • Loo8y says:

      For me that is one of the lynch pins in that case. Assuming he totally forgot about the child – ALL day – even with an email from the daycare to jog his memory, even with going to the car to throw in the light bulbs and that didn’t job his memory – the stench should have woke him up immediately. From what I have been told the smell of decomposition is like no other, not even a teen boys room. But no, he got in and drove away. I suspect he drove to a crowded mall so there would be witnesses to attest to his reaction at the “scene”.
      Yet with all the things on his mind that day (texting, sexting and what not) he forgot the most important thing to him – Cooper BUT NOT the lightbulbs!

    • Anne says:

      I agree with you on this but I am one of those with a very sensitive nose. I am constantly surprised while I am bleaching and scrubbing every surface in my house and my husband and kids say they don’t smell anything. My sister is just like me in this regard and my mom just the opposite.

      I would like to hear evidence of this from people who lived with him. Did he not notice mildewed towels or malodorous areas?

      • Helena says:

        I always wondered exactly what it was that alerted the dad to his son’s prospects. That he became aware that the child was still in the seat ergo had been all this time then continued to drive to the nearest mall.
        Anyone who has smelled the purification of death always tell you that it is the worst smell ever often lingering in the olfactory senses days later. The smell is far beyond household trash, pet urine or any other terrifically bad smell one can think of.

        Indeed officers at the scene said the smell was overpower even hours after the body was removed.

  2. liselasalle says:

    I think that the arguments about his irresponsible attitude could cut both ways. They told the police that they checked online for hot car death days before the incident because it was their worst fear. That would mean they are responsible parents concerned by the safety of their son.

    But this father takes his son to breakfast and 1 mile away forgets he is in the back of his car when death in a car is his worst fear?

    It is going to be a tough one. His unconcerned and immature ways show a man unhappy as a father and looking for a life without burden.

    And the fact that he returned to the car and did not notice smell or sounds…it is no wonder the petition in his favor has been withdrawn.

    We shall see what happens but I would not be surprised if one of the parents decided to take a deal.

    • Starks Shrink says:

      Did you hear some of the comments Leanna made at the funeral? She said she wouldn’t bring Cooper back into this selfish world – Struck me as an odd choice of words.

      • liselasalle says:

        I have and who says that they would not bring their child back in this broken world right after the death?

        She seems to be the weakest link and I bet they are leaning on her to make her turn on her husband.

        So sad in so many ways..

    • Chris says:

      My question is: If they looked this up because they were responsible parents, and paid attention to what they read, wouldn’t they then be ultra-vigilant?

      Talk about something not passing the smell test!

      • Loo8y says:

        I agree. If I was paranoid that I could leave my child in a hot car by accident I would program my smart phone to remind me every day to check!! Afterall, phones are for more than just texting or sexting.
        I wonder how he remembered about the light bulbs? Surely that is something for an absent minded person to easily forget.

  3. Duffy1958 says:

    This is the thing. If we are going to continue to move the bar of responsibility, the things we are responsible for, then or when will anyone be responsible for anything?

    If we don’t pay our house payment, they are going to foreclose on the loan. If we don’t pay our electric bill…they are going to shut the lights off. And so on & so on.

    This (man?) had the wherewithal to hold a job, whatever an employee he was, he still had a job. He had the wherewithal to APPLY for a different job. No one was made conservator over him. He functioned at least by that much.

    If he &/or his wife were doing Internet searches of what it took for an animal to die in a car. He had educated himself for SOME reason. If a person is concerned for the SAFETY of a living creature in a hot car, is it unreasonable to think they should be held responsible for that knowledge? If a person is concerned for SAFETY’S sake, would they not be diligent to make sure there were no accidents? For example, if I’m afraid of an intruder, I’m going to check for that intruder. If I am in fear for my safety, I’m going to be hypervigilent & I sure as fire do not count myself as the sharpest knife in the drawer.

    As far as the smell goes, if you have smelled death, there is no mistaking the smell. Was the car filled with decaying food? Garbage? That doesn’t smell like death either. Only death SMELLS like death.

    $27,000 worth of life insurance on a baby? Was this a Gerber insurance policy which can be borrowed against later in life? Personally I would like to see it illegal or no possibility for life insurance to be taken out on a child, except for burial purposes only. Policy paid to a mortuary on the event of a death.

    Personally I don’t see the D.A filing charges in this case unless there was substantiative factors to convict. If there is no foul play, you don’t have to prove it. They would be costing their county a lot of money for what? Is their county so crime free they need to drum up business? Is someone running for re-election? It makes a difference.

    • Starks Shrink says:

      I don’t think you can use the argument that he must be guilty if they charged him. However, I do agree that one needs to be held responsible for negligent behavior. Being irresponsible shouldn’t be a free pass.

    • Yeah Right says:

      30 seconds from the time he left the restaurant to the time he made the decision to go to work instead of daycare. Less than a minute from the time he strapped him very tightly in an INFANT CARSEAT that was way too small. Unless he has a horrible case of Alzheimers i just took everything this man just said in this article and threw it under the table. The words used by leanna harris ,”you didnt say too much did you?” Or, the words out of Justin Harris’s mouth, “i dreaded how he would look,” after tellimg his wife that cooper looked peaceful when he did not. He remembered where his job was, remembered his laptop which he had to reach right in front of cooper to grab, remembered how to do his job, remembered to strap his kid into the carseat, remembered to go to get light bulbs at lunch (my husband never remembers light bulbs but in almost 9 years has never forgotten our children), remembered leanna was suppose to pick this baby up but in 30 seconds forgot his child… I THINK NOT!

      • Starks Shrink says:

        So, let me get this straight. Because your husband forgets light bulbs but not children, Harris has to be guilty of murder? Compelling argument.

        If no one ever forgot children in hot cars, there would be no need for all of the many PSAs or videos warning of the danger.

  4. alita says:

    I dont see how having poor impulse control could be considered as a factor, when the tragedy arose primarily out of inaction and negligence in the first place.

    • Starks Shrink says:

      the prosecution was focused on his poor impulse control as a motive for murder, my point was that his impulsed could just have easily been so distracting that he forgot his child.

  5. I hope he is charged and convicted..this is happening way too often..I find it so hard to understand how u could forget a baby in a car.and of course with him there was the smell

    • Starks Shrink says:

      The smell would not have been one of decomposition, it was far to soon for that, the odor would likely have been from soiled diapers. The media is distorting the evidence presented in court as well. I recommend that anyone with an interest, listen to the hearing for themselves. It’s available on Youtube.

      • PatrickHMoore says:

        Good point, Doctor. I wondered about that…

      • ACB says:

        Regarding the smell, my recollection from the probable cause hearing is that the lead detective stated that the car smelled like death or decomposition when he personally examined the vehicle later that night.

        • Loo8y says:

          That’s correct and that is what was reported. The stench lingered several hours after the body was extracted.

          So after 7 hrs in that type of heat as soon as you open the door you would be bowled over.

          BUT even if it were diapers rotting which would be pretty awful – why wouldn’t the father call 911 right then and there before driving off to another parking lot?

  6. Rick says:

    Dr. Starks – This is an excellent post on a very sad case. The circumstantial evidence against the father seems to be very strong; however, as you’ve aptly noted, an experienced defense attorney could easily give an innocent spin to that evidence. It will be interesting to see how this case progresses.

    • Starks Shrink says:

      Thanks Rick, I am interested in your opinion from the legal perspective since I merely guess at that.

      • Rick says:

        Dr. Starks — You’ve made some good points in your post about the possible legal defenses that Harris may have. To charge this case as Murder 1, the prosecution will have to prove premeditation and malice aforethought which could be satisfied by the internet research conducted on how long it takes an animal to die in a hot car. On the other hand, as you’ve noted, a plausible alternative explanation is that Harris conducted such research because he was afraid that he might accidentally lock his son in a hot car. After all, perhaps Harris had serious ADD and he was an airhead or a stoner. It is quite possible that the prosecution has overcharged this case in the hope of inducing Harris to plead guilty to a lesser charge. The defense strategy in this case will be interesting to observe as it unfolds.

        • Starks Shrink says:

          so, being completely ignorant of laws, if he is deemed to be an incompetent parent, what is his degree of responsibility?

          • Rick says:

            Dr. Starks – In response to your question, if the father is determined to have acted in a criminally reckless manner, he will be guilty of involuntary manslaughter. According to the website of criminal defense attorney Jeff M. Heller of Canton, Georgia, involuntary manslaughter in Georgia is defined as follows:

            Involuntary manslaughter – Involuntary manslaughter is the unintentional killing of another person. The killing must result from illegal or reckless conduct by the perpetrator. The maximum penalty for involuntary manslaughter is ten years in prison. Involuntary manslaughter may also be a misdemeanor, punishable by less than one year in prison, under certain circumstances.

            Based upon the available facts of this case (as I understand them to be), this father is probably guilty of AT LEAST involuntary manslaughter for leaving his child tightly secured in his car seat in a hot car. Thus, to directly answer your question, a parent who causes the death of his child with a “pure heart and empty head” would still be guilty of involuntary manslaughter under these apparent circumstances.

            As I’ve commented in other areas of this post, I believe that the father may be guilty of a higher-degree of crime than involuntarily manslaughter, since the stated explanations for his actions seem to really reek (sorry about that allusion, but his story doesn’t seem to add up to me). Interestingly, Mr. Heller notes on his website that Georgia does not differentiate between degrees of murder. He writes:

            While many states divide murder into degrees, Georgia law only recognizes one degree of murder. Any murder in Georgia carries a minimum sentence of life in prison. More severe penalties include life without parole or death. A person commits murder in Georgia when he or she illegally kills another person under any of several circumstances:

            The person acted intending to kill another.

            The person acted with depraved disregard for human life. For example, firing a gun into a house or vehicle the person knows to be occupied.

            The person kills another while committing a felony such as robbery. In this case, the killing need not be intentional.

            In this case, the State would appear to have a sound basis for charging Mr. Harris with murder because his actions appear to fall into the category of “act[ing] with depraved disregard for human life” (or, in most states, second degree murder). Thus, I am retracting of my earlier comment that it appears that the State has overcharged Mr. Harris with murder 1 in this case.

  7. Starks Shrink says:

    I was reading about Kyle Seitz, who left his 15 month in his car on Monday after forgetting to drop him at daycare – a very similar situation except for the fact that he actually drove the car to lunch and back with the dead child in his carseat and didn’t notice him until he went to pick him up from daycare.

    Why isn’t the public as outraged over this death? Because there are no seedy details of ‘sexting’. That’s why. I find it deplorable that the public has already convicted the Harris parents based upon evidence that has no bearing on the incident.

    • Rain says:

      I’m extremely outraged by Kyle Seitz’s murder of his son too! It was kept out of the news for a long time and his name withheld in the media even longer. I think he deserves to share a prison cell with Harris! I can’t believe Kyle Seitz found his son and didn’t pull him out of the car seat or call 911. Instead he drove 20 minutes to a hospital…TWENTY MINUTES! Lucky for him he’s white, wealthy with a lawyer for a wife. He’ll get away with murder most likely with all his connections.

  8. […] The Overheating Death of Cooper Harris: Murder or Tragic Accident? […]

  9. GeorgiaSuzy says:

    The outrage began before the Probable Cause Hearing when we learned about the sexting. This outrage was due to media reports that:

    1. Mr. Harris googled “how long does it take for a dog to die in a hot car” prior to Cooper’s death.

    2. Mr. Harris took his son inside Chick-fil-A before work, returned him to his car seat, then within 30-40 seconds forgot to make the turn to the daycare. That’s very little time to forget, and hard for most people to believe.

    3. After that it only took a couple more minutes to get to his office. Most parents who do forget drive longer than that before forgetting.

    4. Mr. Harris went to his car at lunchtime, opened the front door and put something in the car, but didn’t notice his son then either.

    Still, I kept an open mind while waiting for more information. Before the hearing I read some very good articles about parents and grandparents who have forgotten and left a child in the car with fatal results. There was info about how your brain can go on autopilot as you start thinking of the day ahead and planning it out, and a parent can end up driving on to work thinking they’ve dropped the child off like any other day. A memory expert said sometimes the parent “remembers” dropping the child off, but it’s kind of like a cached memory of another drop-off. The journalist interviewed several people this happened to, and I felt absolutely awful for these people. One woman drove to daycare to pick up her child, where she was told she didn’t drop off the child and sprinted back to her car to find him dead. A man forgot to drop off his son and went straight to work, spoke to his wife a couple of times about the baby, heard his car alarm go off 3 times and looked out his office window but didn’t see anyone messing with his car so turned off the alarm only to get a call from his wife later that their child wasn’t at daycare at which time he sprinted to his car and found his child dead. All had something in common – their usual routine was broken, or they weren’t the one who usually dropped off the child, for example. It was heartbreaking – these people were devastated, suicidal, depressed, in agony. It was not done on purpose, and these weren’t people who left their child in the car while they went shopping or clubbing. It could happen to anybody – I know sometimes I go on autopilot when driving and suddenly realize I don’t remember driving from point A to point B, or I automatically drove to my office when I was supposed to go to the satellite office that day. Lots of folks set up a weekly pill tray with their morning and evening pills in it, and one reason is that when we habitually do something it’s easy to think we already did it, but often I have to check my pill tray to see if I took that day’s dose because it IS so routine.

    So I gave Mr. Harris the benefit of the doubt based on the other parents I’d read about, and then the Probable Cause Hearing was televised. I watched it to find out the facts, and it became even harder to think this was a typical accident:

    5 days before Cooper died, Dad searched about hot car deaths and watched a video twice where a veterinarian demonstrated how hot it quickly gets inside a car.

    Dad said this was one of his biggest fears yet took no actions to minimize the risk like leaving his shoe or laptop in the back seat or setting a reminder in his iPhone.

    When he parked at work even tho other parking spaces were open, Mr. Harris backed between 2 parked cars into a spot in the row behind that had a grassy area on the passenger’s side of his car and another car on the driver’s side. He didn’t have a backup camera so would’ve needed to look over his shoulder or in his rearview and side mirrors; either way he’d have seen Cooper as the car seat was in the middle of the back seat.

    He was the parent that normally took Cooper to daycare.

    He described his routine that morning as a usual day, with no distractions on the way to work and no phone calls.

    Law enforcement noted a strong odor of decomposition in the car even after it had been open and child-free for a couple hours, yet Mr. Harris drove for 10 minutes before realizing Cooper was in the car with him.

    When he and his wife spoke for the first time after Cooper’s death, he expressed concern for himself, not for Cooper. There were no anguished apologies for forgetting, no self-recriminations or incredulity about their biggest fear coming true. Instead his comments were “How could this be happening to me?”, “Why am I being punished”, “I’ll lose my job”, etc.

    His wife’s reactions were odd as well, both at the daycare and the police station.

    The sexting doesn’t matter to me except for the minor involved. It may or may not speak to motive; however, in the USA we don’t have to prove motive. Knowing the motive does make it easier for us and for juries to understand why the crime was committed, but many crimes have motives so petty they’re hard to believe: murders for $20 in someone’s wallet, disagreements over biscuit recipes at Thanksgiving, a teenager playing their music “too loud”, etc. Serial killers don’t have an understandable motive at all, but that doesn’t make them any less guilty.

    Casey Anthony was overcharged in Florida; Ross Harris is not. Leaving your child in the car like this is felony child neglect in Georgia; Cooper’s death during the commission of the felony makes it felony murder. I don’t think Georgia even has to prove intent, but a jury would surely take it into consideration when determining his degree of guilt and punishment.

    I guess this was a long-winded way to say that while the sexting has stirred up prurient interest, it had nothing to do with many people’s interpretation of the known facts.

    • Helena says:

      Thank you for summing up all my thoughts on this case.
      You have been able to outline the salient points in this case that make it very different than your average accidental hot car death case.
      Whether there is enough evidence for the death penalty is another matter. In my view there is enough for a serious penalty for the willful death of poor little Cooper.

      For me this is a case of “eraser” murder where through willful negligence a parent chooses to erase the existence of the obstacle to their happiness – their child.

    • Starks Shrink says:

      While I disagree, at this point (we’ve yet to hear the defense), with your conclusion, I appreciate your thoughtful and deliberate way of approaching it.

    • Rick says:

      You’ve written very cogent and insightful comments. If you’re not a lawyer already, you should consider going to law school. :) And this comes from a tax lawyer.

  10. […] The Overheating Death of Cooper Harris: Murder or Tragic Accident? […]

  11. […] The Overheating Death of Cooper Harris: Murder or Tragic Accident? […]

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