Child’s death in sweltering SUV goes from tragedy to murder investigation

Posted at 7:32 AM, Jun 26, 2014
and last updated 2014-06-26 07:32:30-04

(CNN) — When it became clear to Justin Harris that his toddler son, Cooper, was dead, he was so inconsolable that police had to restrain him.

“What have I done?” he wailed as he tried to resuscitate the little boy.

Cooper had spent seven hours in Harris’ parked car on a day when the temperature peaked at 92 degrees F.

Police originally said the dad had apparently forgotten the boy was in the back seat of his Hyundai Tucson — not until he was done with his work day and pulled into a shopping center parking lot.

“What have I done?”


Initially, police had seemed sympathetic, describing the toddler’s death on June 18 as the result of tragic absent mindedness.

But a lot has come to light in the last week.

A criminal warrant released Wednesday described the events that led to Cooper’s death.


Cooper, blue-eyed and full of wonder, adored cars and trucks.

The 22-month-old loved saying goodbye to them as he left parking lots. He had just learned the color red.

“As we passed red vehicles he would tell his mommy and his daddy, ‘Bye red car, bye red truck,'” an online obituary read.

On the day Cooper died, Harris stopped for breakfast at a fast-food restaurant and afterward strapped his son into a rear-facing child restraint seat on his SUV’s backseat, police said.

He drove to his workplace, a Home Depot corporate office, about a half-mile away. He works as a web designer there.

Normally, he takes his son to an on-site day care.

But that day, police said, Harris left him in the car seat.

During his lunch break, he returned to his car, opening the driver’s side door to put something inside, police said.

After work, at around 4:16 p.m., the 33-year-old father got in his car and drove away.

The version police laid out in the criminal warrant may mean Harris’ original story did not pass muster with them.

“The chain of events that occurred in this case does not point toward simple negligence and evidence will be presented to support this allegation,” said Cobb County Police Chief John House.

Authorities charged Harris with murder and second-degree child cruelty.

He has pleaded not guilty.

He sits in jail without bond, with an appearance before a judge scheduled for July 3.


Each year, dozens of children die from heat strokes in cars, according to More than 40 died last year. The organization believes its tally is incomplete and much lower than the real toll.

When police charged Harris, it triggered a wave of sympathy and a vigorous debate over whether the heartbroken father should be punished.

Atlanta area resident Erin Krans started a petition asking prosecutors to drop the charges. It has garnered hundreds of signatures.

Another, set up at, has raised more than $22,000 for the Harris family.

“Please dont listen to the media. It just upsets me to watch it,” wrote Heather McCullar, who set it up. “Please dont listen to the media. The family will speak when they can.”

Contacted by CNN via e-mail, she wrote back, “No one is allowed to comment right now.”


As Harris sits in jail, his wife, Leanna, would not discuss the case with the media. Harris’ attorney has not returned repeated calls from CNN.

The medical examiner’s office is waiting for toxicology test results before making an official ruling as to the cause and manner of the toddler’s death.

Cooper’s funeral, meanwhile, will be held on Saturday in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

CNN’s Victor Blackwell, Devon M. Sayers, MaryLynn Ryan and Joe Sterling contributed to this report.

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