The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Georgia father sentenced to life in prison for the hot car death of his 22-month-old son

Justin Ross Harris is sentenced to life behind bars for intentionally leaving his toddler son, Cooper, to die inside a sweltering SUV on a hot summer day. (Video: Reuters)

On a clear and sunny Wednesday morning in June two years ago, Justin Ross Harris ate breakfast at a Chick-fil-A in northwest Atlanta. With him was his 22-month-old son, Cooper, strapped into his rear-facing car seat in the back row of their Hyundai Tucson.

Harris was supposed to drop Cooper off at his day care. Instead, he drove straight to work, parked his vehicle and went inside — leaving Cooper in the SUV.

Parking-lot surveillance cameras would later show that Harris returned to his car after going out to lunch with his co-workers to put away some lightbulbs he had bought, but didn’t get inside the vehicle himself.

Harris ultimately left work around 4:15 p.m. Five minutes later, he pulled over into a shopping center just a few miles away where, according to police records, Harris pulled Cooper out of the car and tried to perform CPR.

“My God, what have I done?” Harris screamed then while sobbing, his attorneys later said in court. “I killed my boy. I’m so sorry, Cooper, I’m so sorry.”

Cooper was pronounced dead a couple of hours later. According to investigators, the temperature near the car seat inside the SUV had reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit.

The medical examiner noted that Cooper had “parched abrasions” to his scalp, right forehead and left cheek.

“The lips are parched,” the medical examiner’s report read. “The tongue and gums are pale.”

The cause of death was recommended to be hyperthermia.

Harris was arrested and charged with murder. His case, which has spanned more than two years, was widely publicized as people scrutinized every aspect of the trial and the Harris family’s past. The case attracted so much coverage that the trial itself had to be moved more than 300 miles away, to Brunswick, Ga.

Over two years, Harris’s defense attorneys argued that the 35-year-old father was a devoted parent who had simply suffered a memory lapse in leaving Cooper in the car. Cooper’s death, they argued, was the result of a tragic accident that could have — and has — happened to other parents.

More than 600 children have died in hot cars since 1998. It isn’t getting better.

Prosecuting attorneys laid out a different case: that Harris was an adulterer with “a malignant heart” who frequently sexted with women outside his marriage — including while his son was left in the hot car that day — and had intentionally killed Cooper so that he could escape his responsibilities as a father.

“It’s not a case of an adult hating his child,” prosecutor Chuck Boring told jurors in his final argument to jurors last month, according to the Associated Press. “It’s just that he loved himself and his other obsessions more than that little boy.”

Last month, the jury found Harris guilty on all eight charges against him, including malice murder. Harris, they decided, had left his son in the car to die on purpose.

On Monday during the sentencing hearing, prosecutors asked for the maximum sentence allowed by law, declaring that Harris “was driven by selfishness and committed an unspeakable act against his own flesh and blood,” killing his son in “the most torturous, horrific, unimaginable way possible.”

Through much of the hearing, Harris sat expressionless in the packed courtroom, dressed in an orange jumpsuit and shackles. His defense attorneys did not offer to present additional evidence or statements.

Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley Clark sentenced Harris to life in prison, without the possibility of parole, plus 32 years. It was the maximum allowed by law based on the eight charges against him.

“Except for the fact that the defendant has no prior criminal record, there is no mitigating fact or circumstance in this case,” Clark said, before announcing the sentence. “This court finds particularly that the defendant intentionally and unnecessarily in a wanton manner, caused and inflicted upon Cooper Harris unnecessary and wanton severe physical and mental pain and agony.”

As she spoke, Clark appeared at times to try to restrain her emotions. She told Harris what he had done was “a violation and dereliction of duty to that child if not love of that child” as he “callously walked away” from his son in the car two years ago. “In June. In Georgia,” she added for emphasis.

“The state’s recommendation is the very least that anyone could deem just under the circumstances of this case,” Clark said.

She called Harris up to the front of the courtroom just before announcing the sentence.

“My final observation is this, Mr. Harris,” Clark said. “I went back and reviewed and thought about your statement to the police and your statement to your wife when you were taken into custody. It stood out to me that in both of those you [stated you] wished you would be an advocate so that people would never do this again to your children. And I would say, perhaps not in the way that you intended, that you in fact have accomplished that goal.”

Harris was led out of the courtroom shortly after 2 p.m.

Harris’s defense attorneys have said they plan to file an appeal within 30 days, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

“There were breakdowns in this process that occurred,” lead defense attorney Maddox Kilgore told the paper following Harris’s conviction last month. “There were breakdowns in the investigation. There were breakdowns in the pre-trial phase, the motions phase. And there were breakdowns in the trial. It’s our belief those breakdowns affected the verdict.”

As summer temperatures rise, here are a few simple tips from the National Safety Council to keep kids safe. (Video: Tom LeGro/The Washington Post)

Harris’s charges included one count of sexual exploitation of children and two counts of dissemination of harmful material to minors, because he was found to have exchanged sexually explicit text messages with underage girls. During the trial, several women testified they had sexual relationships with Harris. In October, one of those teenagers testified that the two had been texting on the day Cooper died, while Harris was at work.

The girl told jurors that, at about 2 p.m. that day, Harris texted her to ask for a photo of her breasts, according to the AP, which did not name the girl because she was a minor victim of a sex crime.

“Yummy,” Harris replied upon receiving the photo. It would be about two more hours before he left work.

The media trial of Leanna Harris, charged with nothing in hot-car death of her son

Harris’s ex-wife, Leanna Taylor, divorced Harris earlier this year. Despite that, she gave an emotional testimony in October defending Harris as a loving father who helped with Cooper’s diapers, meals and baths, and who watched cartoons in bed together with his son in the mornings.

Taylor acknowledged there were problems in their marriage and that she had caught him texting other women, but she insisted to jurors that Harris would not have left their son in the car to die intentionally.

“I knew he was never going to forgive himself,” Taylor testified, according to the AP. “He wanted to be the one to push him on a swing. He wanted to be the one to slide down the slide with him … He wanted to enjoy every second he could with him.”

According to the National Safety Council, more than two dozen children have died of heatstroke in 2016 after being left or trapped in hot cars.

“Maybe it’s an overworked parent who forgets to drop off their child at daycare, or a relative who thinks the child will be okay ‘for just a few minutes,'” says an NSC pamphlet on the issue.

The group advises parents to put something they will need by their child’s carseat — a purse, wallet or phone, for example — as an additional reminder to check the back.

“Remember, children overheat four times faster than adults,” says a message on the council’s website. “A child is likely to die when his body temperature reaches 107 degrees, and that can happen in minutes.”

Those who see a child alone in a car are advised to call 911 immediately or even break into the car during an emergency, the group said, noting that many states have Good Samaritan laws.

Read more:

Fatal Distraction: Forgetting a Child in the Backseat of a Car Is a Horrifying Mistake. Is It a Crime?

This doll in a hot car was so incredibly lifelike that cop smashed window, administered CPR to save it

3-year-old dies after being left alone in mother’s patrol car for hours