Atlanta Gripped by Case of Father Whose Baby Son Died After he Left him in a Car for 7 Hours: Is it Murder or a Horrible Mistake?

Cobb County police officers with the vehicle in which a 22-month-old boy died after being left there for about seven hours on a warm day last week. The father is being held without bail. (Credit: Ben Gray/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, via Associated Press)
Cobb County police officers with the vehicle in which a 22-month-old boy died after being left there for about seven hours on a warm day last week. The father is being held without bail. (Credit: Ben Gray/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, via Associated Press)

The legal drama that has gripped this city for more than a week comes down to whether a 2011 Hyundai Tucson should be considered the scene of a crime or of a horrible mistake.

To the authorities in suburban Cobb County, the vehicle is the place where Justin Ross Harris murdered his 22-month-old son, Cooper, by leaving him in a rear-facing car seat for about seven hours on a warm Southern day.

Among Mr. Harris’s supporters, some of whom seem to be wavering as new details have emerged, the answer is less clear. They contend that an absent-minded error is what led to the child’s death on June 18.

The legal case is all the more unusual because at its center is not a woman — research indicates mothers are charged more often than fathers in such deaths — or a parent who was clearly under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Instead, the suspect is a suburban father with a corporate job at Home Depot who appeared overjoyed in a picture posted online when he and his son took in a baseball game.

Mr. Harris, 33, is part of what has become an alarmingly common fact of American life. At least 44 children died of heatstroke last year after being left in vehicles, according to statistics compiled by a San Francisco State University researcher, part of a toll of more than 600 deaths under similar circumstances since 1998. The vast majority of those deaths were accidents; the authorities contend that Cooper Harris’s was not.

“The chain of events that occurred in this case does not point toward simple negligence,” Chief John R. Houser of the Cobb County Police Department said in a statement this week, days after a department spokesman told CNN that what he knew of the matter “shocks my conscience as a police officer, a father and a grandfather.”

Investigators filed a murder charge within hours of Cooper’s death and have resisted demands to drop the case against Mr. Harris, whose lawyer did not respond to a message seeking comment. But in an arrest warrant issued this week, the authorities said that Mr. Harris had visited a restaurant before he drove to his workplace and left his son strapped in the car seat as he went in to work. During a later break, the police said, Mr. Harris returned to his vehicle, only to leave the child there again.

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SOURCE: ALAN BLINDER 
The New York Times

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