MARIETTA—Police now say the father whose 22-month-old son died after being left in a hot car for seven hours returned to his car in the middle of the day.
Justin Ross Harris, 33, initially told police he forgot to take his son Cooper to day care on the morning of June 18 before heading into work at The Home Depot’s headquarters in Cumberland.
By the time Harris made his way home in his Hyundai Tuscan that afternoon, Cooper was dead.
An updated arrest warrant obtained Wednesday indicates Harris stopped for breakfast at a Chik-fil-A near his office before placing his son in the back of his car.
According to police, Harris left his office during lunch, went out to his car and opened the driver’s side door to “place an object in the vehicle.”
Police say he still did not acknowledge the fact that his son, who was strapped into a rear-facing car seat in the center of the backseat, was still in the car until he had driven part of the way home after work.
The county medical examiner’s office said it is waiting for the results of a toxicology report before making its official ruling in the case.
But the Medical Examiner said he believed the cause of the toddler’s death to be hyperthermia—which occurs when the body overheats.
He indicated the manner of death was homicide given the “investigative information” authorities have gathered.
The statement, released Wednesday evening, clarified the definition of homicide in the medical sense simply denotes a “death caused by another.”
Left in a car in the hot sun, Cooper Harris likely was dead within an hour of being left in the car, according to Janette Fennell, President and Founder of Kars and Kids, a Missouri-based group that studies child deaths involving cars.
Fennell said she wouldn’t be surprised if Ross Harris opened his car door at noon and didn’t notice the child, especially if he only reached in for a moment.
“You don’t see something you’re not looking for,” Fennell said.
She added that there would not be an odor in the first several hours after the child died.
One difference between the updated warrant and the ones produced last week is the cruelty to children charge was changed from first degree to second degree.
Ray Gary, Jr., a Marietta-based attorney, explained the difference between first and second degree cruelty to children.
“All crimes have two elements, the act and the intent,” Gary said. “If something is an accident, it’s not a crime. For first-degree cruelty to children it’s malicious intent, for second degree, which is easier to prove, it’s negligence.”
Gary said it looks like police are “backing up a little bit,” changing to a lesser charge in hopes of moving the case forward.
The change could make little difference overall since the felony murder charge remains. A conviction for felony murder can lead to a life sentence in prison, according to Cobb District Attorney Vic Reynolds.
The warrant indicates police think Harris left his son in the car on purpose, Gary said.
“If you left a child in the car on purpose and it caused their death, it’s felony murder,” Gary said.
But Gary, a former Cobb magistrate court judge, said based on what he’s seen so far he still can’t figure out why Harris was charged with murder.
“The fact he came back later to put something in the car, that doesn’t tell me he remembered the child was there,” Gary said. “I haven’t seen anything that indicates he did it on purpose.”
Harris pulled into the Akers Mill Square strip mall off Akers Mill Road shortly after 4 p.m. that afternoon and begged strangers there for help.
First responders pronounced Cooper dead at the scene.
Fox 5’s Randy Travis is reporting investigators seized Harris’ office computer following his arrest last week. A law enforcement source told Fox 5 someone searched for information on how long it would take an animal to die in a hot car.
Harris remains in the county jail, where is being held without bond. He has plead not guilty to the charges against him. A spokesperson for the sheriff’s office said Harris would not be transported to his son’s funeral, which will take place Saturday in Tuscaloosa at the University Church of Christ.
The county magistrate court reported Harris will next appear in court July 3, where the issue of his bond will be addressed.
Judge Frank R. Cox, chief of the Cobb’s magistrate court, will preside over the hearing, which was moved up from July 15.
Police say the investigation is ongoing and more information is expected to be released in the coming days.
Sources familiar with the investigation have said the death of the toddler does not appear to have been an accident.