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Georgia father whose son died in hot car faces judge

Georgia father whose son died in hot car faces judge
CNN
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Thursday, July 3, 2014 - 12:54pm

A man whose son died after he left the 22-month-old in an SUV on a hot Georgia day appeared in court Thursday.

Dozens of reporters and spectators showed up before the hearing began. They filled the courtroom, with about 20 people left to stand.

Among those in the courtroom was the toddler's mother, who was holding another woman's hand and appeared emotional when her husband, Justin Ross Harris, was brought into the courtroom in an orange prison jumpsuit.

At the probable cause hearing, a judge will determine whether there's enough evidence to support charges of murder and second-degree child cruelty against Harris. If prosecutors are successful in making their case to the judge, it will proceed to a grand jury, where the district attorney will seek an indictment.

Fewer than 10 witnesses are expected to be called, said Kim Isaza, a spokeswoman for the Cobb County district attorney. Police investigators are likely to take the stand, as well as possible character witnesses, all of whom will be subject to cross-examination.

It's possible, but unlikely, that Harris and his wife will testify, Isaza said.

Police say Harris, 33, left his toddler, Cooper, strapped into a car seat under a baking sun for seven hours while he went to work. Records show the mercury topped 92 on June 18, and police say the temperature was 88 degrees when the boy was pronounced dead in a parking lot not far from his father's workplace.

Harris, who is being held without bail, has pleaded not guilty.

When news of the boy's death first broke, it was cast as a tragic mistake by an absentminded father. Police later indicated that evidence pointed to something more sinister and that some of the father's statements to first responders "were not making sense," said Sgt. Dana Pierce of the Cobb County Police Department.

According to a criminal warrant, Harris placed Cooper into a rear-facing child restraint in the backseat of his Hyundai Tucson after eating breakfast at a fast-food restaurant.

The Web developer then drove to his workplace, a Home Depot corporate office about a half-mile away, according to the warrant. Normally, Harris would drop Cooper off at an on-site day care there.

The father returned to the SUV during his lunch break, opening the driver's side door "to place an object into the vehicle," the warrant states.

Initially, police said Harris had apparently forgotten the boy was in the backseat and didn't remember until after he left work, at which point he pulled into a parking lot asking for assistance and wailing, "What have I done?"

Police had to restrain Harris after it became clear Cooper had died, police said at first.

Though he didn't say exactly what led police to view the case as a crime, Pierce told CNN, "I've been in law enforcement for 34 years. What I know about this case shocks my conscience as a police officer, a father and a grandfather."

Among the details police have released is that Harris and his wife, Leanna, told them they conducted Internet searches on how hot a car needed to be to kill a child.

Harris "stated that he recently researched, through the Internet, child deaths inside vehicles and what temperature it needs to be for that to occur," police said, adding that Harris told investigators "he was fearful that this could happen."

During questioning, Leanna Harris "made similar statements regarding researching in car deaths and how it occurs," police said.

The time frame for the alleged research remains unclear.

Cooper was buried Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. At his funeral, Leanna Harris said she loves her husband and stands by him.

"Am I angry with Ross?" Leanna Harris told mourners. "Absolutely not. It has never crossed my mind. Ross is and was and will be, if we have more children, a wonderful father. Ross is a wonderful daddy and leader for our household. Cooper meant the world to him."

Carol Brown, a longtime family friend who attended the funeral, said she is not ready to convict Ross Harris, as it's entirely possible he could have gone to his car during lunch and not seen the boy.

"He could have been distracted, but I do have questions about it," she said.

The Cobb County Medical Examiner's Office determined the child's cause of death was "consistent with hyperthermia and the investigative information suggests the manner of death is homicide," according to a Cobb County Department of Public Safety statement.

The Medical Examiner's Office is waiting for toxicology test results before making an official ruling on the toddler's death.

CNN's Devon Sayers, Faith Karimi, Steve Almasy, Vivian Kuo, Marlena Baldacci and Nick Valencia contributed to this report. 

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