Citing 'reckless disregard,' judge denies bond in hot car toddler death

Police say Justin Harris, charged with murder in the death of his young son left in a hot car, was attracted to a 'childless' life and had studied such deaths on the Internet.

Kelly J. Huff/Marietta Daily Journal/AP
Justin Ross Harris, the father of a toddler who died after police say he was left in a hot car for about seven hours, listens during his bond hearing in Cobb County Magistrate Court Thursday in Marietta, Ga.

Justin Harris wasn’t talking to anybody on the phone, and he said there were no distractions. In the past, Mr. Harris had been so concerned about accidentally leaving his 22-month toddler son, Cooper, in a hot car that he practiced a parent program called “Turn Around” to make sure busy parents didn’t leave their child in a car.

But on Thursday, a Cobb County, Ga., judge, after hearing evidence alleging that Mr. Harris may have planned the murder of his son, ruled that second degree child cruelty and resulting murder charges should go to a grand jury.

“Probable cause is a low threshold, and the court is persuaded that the very minimum there’s reckless disregard for the safety of others in the conduct of Mr. Harris,” said Superior Court Judge Frank Cox. “In the moments that lapsed between the time he placed the child in the car seat and got to the workplace and allegedly forgot the child … there’s probable cause.”

Given that Harris is facing a life sentence and possibly the death penalty if convicted, Judge Cox denied bond, which means Harris will be jailed until trial.

Cobb County police told a court Thursday that Harris, a former police dispatcher from Alabama who worked at Home Depot corporate offices in Marietta, Ga., says in the span of 30 seconds after placing the child in his seat on June 18 he forgot about Connor, and left him in an unshaded SUV as the day began to warm into the low 90s.

Seven hours later, the child was dead. Police allege that child cruelty and murder charge against Harris were undergirded by evidence of motive, including an unhappy marriage, sending sexual texts to other women (including at least one teenager), and a potential wish by Harris for a “childless life,” a subject he had studied on the Internet along with the issue of hot car child deaths.

Connor’s death has sparked widespread debate about whether it was appropriate to level murder charges against a man who seemed to truly love his son. It’s not unheard of for a busy parent focusing on something at hand to forget about a small child in a car seat. Thirteen children have died this year in the US under such conditions, with 44 such deaths recorded in 2013.

“He was a good dad,” Harris’ brother, police officer Randy Baygents Jr., testified.

But that support for Harris – including online petitions and fund raising – faded as prosecutors laid out their case.

“Most people, myself included, were willing to give him the benefit of reasonable doubt – accidental deaths happen all the time,” said CNN analyst Sunny Hostin, who has admitted to once forgetting, just for a moment, that her child was in the car. “But the prosecution has placed before the world its theory, which includes motive: a marriage failing, sexting, searching how to live a child-free life, financial difficulties with two life insurance policies out on the little boy.”

Harris’s defense argued Thursday that there’s little hard evidence to show that Harris intended to leave his son in the SUV that day. Harris himself told investigators that he was shocked he was being charged with murder because there was no “malicious intent.”

Some witnesses who watched as Harris realized what he had done also believed his emotions were real.

“I think it is impossible for this to have been intentional,” one witness, Leonard Madden, has said. “There’s no way it would have been intentional – especially from the father’s reaction. You could feel his sorrow and his hurt….”

Harris told police that three minutes before leaving Cooper in the car he gave him a kiss as they left a local Chick-fil-A, and Cooper kissed him back – a ritual the two had established in case they got in a car accident and died.

"It's a horrible tragedy and an accident," defense attorney Maddox Kilgore said.

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