(MARIETTA, Ga.) — The Georgia dad charged with killing his toddler son by leaving the boy in a hot car all day was exchanging graphic texts with a woman and a teenage girl in the hours before he found the boy dead, a detective testified Thursday at a probable cause court hearing.
At the end of the hearing, a judge determined that Justin Ross Harris, 33, could face the death penalty. He was also denied bond.
The prosecutor said that he brought up the sexting messages during the court hearing because it “goes to the state of mind” of the defendant, Justin Ross Harris.
“He wanted to live a child-free life,” the prosecutor said.
Detective Phil Stoddard also told the court that the boy, Cooper Harris, endured a “painful death.”
Cobb County Police Department Detective Phil Stoddard told the court that before little Cooper Harris died, his father took him to a Chik-fil-A restaurant for breakfast and while buckling the boy back into his car seat, “Cooper gives him a kiss and he [Harris] gave him a kiss back.”
Harris, 33, sat impassively in an orange jail jumpsuit during the hearing. Harris, who faces child cruelty and murder charges, has insisted he forgot his son was in the car and that the boy’s death was accident.
Stoddard testified that before the boy died, Harris had visited the website Reddit to search for articles on life without children, and viewed videos on Reddit that showed people dying — by suicide or execution, in some cases.
Harris had also twice viewed a video that shows the painful death of animals left in hot cars, and had searched for how to survive in prison, according to searches of his laptop, Stoddard said.
The detective said both Harris and his wife, Leanna Harris, seemed unemotional after learning their son died. Harris never called 911 after finding the boy unresponsive in his SUV on June 18, Stoddard said.
The detective told the court that Cooper suffered a “painful death.” He said the temperature that day 88 degrees.
But Harris told his wife the boy “looked peaceful … his eyes and his mouth were closed,” Stoddard recalled of the pair meeting at the police station. The detective added under questioning, however, that photos taken by police show that the boy’s eyes and mouth were not closed.
At one point, Harris told his wife: “I dreaded how he looked,” according to Stoddard’s testimony.
And Leanna Harris asked her husband, “Did you say too much?” during police questioning, Stoddard said.
The detective also raised some points about the wife’s behavior in his testimony. He said that employees at the day care center said that when she went to pick up her son and was told her husband hadn’t drop off Cooper that morning, she said moments later, “Ross must have left him in the car.”
The officer also said that he clearly heard a phone call between Leanna Harris and her mother in which Cooper’s grandmother was distraught over the news of the boy’s death and asked her daughter, “Why aren’t you crying.” Leanna Harris replied, “I must be in shock,” Stoddard said.
There were also marks on Cooper’s face and abrasions on the back of his head, the officer said.
Harris and his wife had two insurance policies on their son, one worth $2,000 through Home Depot, where Harris worked, and a second policy worth $25,000 the couple took out in November 2012, Stoddard said.
Police noticed a “foul stench or odor” coming from the vehicle and hour and a half after Cooper was removed, Stoddard said, suggesting Harris would have also realized the smell.
“It smelled like decomposition, or death,” Stoddard said.
When asked if thought that Harris was a flight risk, the detective said he did think Harris was a flight risk in part because “he has a whole second life.”
Witnesses who testified on Harris’ behalf painted him as a loving dad.
Leonard Madden, who had lunch near the parking lot where Harris pulled in after he said he realized his son was dead and in the back of his SUV, said his reaction to finding the boy was “definitely genuine.”
Madden contradicted the detective’s testimony that Harris never shed a tear.
“He was saying ‘Oh my God, oh my God, my son is dead,” Madden said. “He was crying, he was sobbing.”
Another witness, James Alex Hall, Harris’ coworker and friend from college, said he planned to go to the movies with his pal the day Cooper died. Nothing was unusual about Harris’ behavior that day, Hall said in court.
“He said he loved his son all the time,” Hall added. “He said his son was very important to him.”
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