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The hot-car death of 22-month-old Cooper Harris was heartbreakingly familiar. His father’s unusual murder conviction has now been thrown out

<i>Kelly Huff /Pool/Reuters</i><br/>Justin Ross Harris
REUTERS
Kelly Huff /Pool/Reuters
Justin Ross Harris

By Ray Sanchez, CNN

On the final morning of his short life, 22-month-old Cooper Harris was up early, at 5:15, an hour before sunrise in the Atlanta suburb where he lived with his parents.

His father, Justin Ross Harris, a 33-year-old web developer, brought the still-groggy toddler into the bed he shared with Leanna Taylor, his wife of eight years. Just under three feet tall, with wisps of blond hair framing his cherubic face, Cooper snuggled with mom and dad — and nodded out again.

Before the sun rose over the Cobb County city of Marietta that morning on June 18, 2014, Harris had already sent or exchanged online messages — some sexual in nature — with at least four young women, one of them 17.

At 9:26 a.m., after a leisurely “daddy/son breakfast” at Chick-fil-A — his son’s belly “full of sausage biscuit,” in the words of Cooper’s mom — Harris closed the door of his Hyundai Tucson SUV.

Carrying a Chick-fil-A cup and his work bag, Harris walked to his cubicle at the Home Depot offices, leaving Cooper — who he was supposed to drop off at a day care center as usual that morning — strapped in a rear-facing car seat for the next seven hours.

This detailed recounting of Cooper’s last hours and his father’s actions that day are gleaned from a June 22 Georgia Supreme Court ruling, which meticulously chronicled the evidence presented at Harris’ murder trial in its decision to overturn his conviction for deliberately leaving his son to die of hyperthermia in the hot SUV.

The ruling came in a month in which at least five heat-related car deaths involving children were reported in the United Sates, according to the NoHeatStroke.org data website, as temperatures soared and parts of the country endured heat waves.

These nightmarish cases often draw national attention. But they rarely lead to murder charges from prosecutors who must weigh the intent of grieving parents who insist they simply forgot leaving their child in a hot car.

At least seven heat-related car deaths reported this year

Cooper’s death was heartbreakingly familiar: 31 children died of vehicular heatstroke in the United States in 2014, the year the boy died, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

At least nine deaths have been reported this year, and more than 900 since 1998 — or 38 per year on average, according to the NHTSA and NoHeatStroke.org, which is run by San Jose University’s Department of Meteorology and Climate Science.

July is usually the deadliest month, and it started with a death on Friday. A 1-year-old child died in a hot car while their father was at work in Mebane, North Carolina, police said. The death is being investigated and no charges had been filed. Mebane police said they were conferring with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.

In Danielsville, Georgia, on Thursday, a 1-year-old child died after being left in a hot vehicle by their mother, according to the Madison County Sheriff’s Office. The death appeared accidental and the Northern Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office will review the case.

On Tuesday, an 18-month-old boy died after being left in a car in Virginia for several hours, police in Chesterfield County said. The father, who accidentally left the boy in the car, later took his own life.

Last Sunday, in southern Georgia, a 3-year-old boy died after being left in a hot SUV for nearly three hours. The preliminary cause of death is asphyxiation, according to Muscogee County Coroner Buddy Bryan. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation was performing an autopsy and results could up to five months to complete, Bryan said.

In Texas on June 20, a 5-year-old died after he was left in a car outside the family’s Houston home while his mother prepared her daughter’s birthday party. Child welfare authorities were investigating and it’s unclear if the mother will face charges, CNN affiliate KTRK reported.

Most pediatric hot-car deaths occur because the child is forgotten by a caregiver, according to Jan Null, a lecturer in meteorology and climate science at San Jose State.

Monica McCoy, a psychology professor at Converse College in South Carolina, who has studied prosecutions following the death of children in hot cars, said her unpublished research of 508 cases showed that serious charges such as homicide are unusual — filed in 9.6% of the cases.

“Murder charges are fairly rare and convictions are even less likely,” she said in an email. “Sometimes harsh charges are filed immediately following the death, but they are later reduced or dropped… Parents are also much more likely to be charged in cases when drugs or alcohol are involved.”

Georgia Supreme Court decision reignites sensational case

The case surrounding Cooper Harris’ death stood out in particular because murder charges were brought against his father, with the prosecution asserting Harris killed the boy to free himself of the burdens of fatherhood.

Harris is serving a sentence of life without parole after prosecutors, in 2016, convinced a Cobb County jury that he lived a “double life” — a loving and involved dad in one, a philanderer and sexual predator in the other.

His extramarital affairs, the state argued, motivated his decision to leave his only son to “die a slow and painful death” in the hot SUV.

The Georgia Supreme Court ruling reignites, at least for the moment, a sensational criminal case that was tried about 300 miles from Cobb County because of intense pretrial publicity.

READ: Georgia Supreme Court overturns hot car death conviction

The state’s highest court ruled 6-3 that extensive evidence presented to the jury “convincingly demonstrated” Harris was “a philanderer, a pervert, and even a sexual predator” but “did little if anything to answer the key question” of his intent when he walked away from his son.

“Because the properly admitted evidence that Appellant maliciously and intentionally left Cooper to die was far from overwhelming,” the court’s opinion said, “we cannot say that it is highly probable that the erroneously admitted sexual evidence did not contribute to the jury’s guilty verdicts.”

Harris was convicted of three counts of murder for his son’s death, two counts of cruelty to children, and three counts related to electronic exchanges of lewd material with a minor.

The high court reversed the convictions related to the crimes against his son, ruling that the extensive evidence about his sexual activities was “extremely and unfairly prejudicial.”

The court left in place the charges related to his exchanges with an underage girl.

Harris was sentenced to a total of 12 years on those three charges: Ten years for one count of attempt to commit sexual exploitation of a child, and one year each for two counts of dissemination of harmful material to a minor, according to the ruling.

CNN has sought comment from Harris’ attorneys.

The Cobb County District Attorney’s Office said it plans to file a motion for the court to reconsider the ruling but declined further comment.

Cooper’s mother, Leanna Taylor, said after the Georgia Supreme Court ruling that she hoped it helps change the way her son is remembered.

“That he was wanted, that he was loved and that he is missed every single day,” she said in a statement released by her attorney Lawrence Zimmerman.

She reiterated her belief that Harris did not intend to kill their only child that hot day. That’s what she told police that day in 2014 — and what she testified at Harris’ trial two years later.

She stands by those words.

“While this will not change anything about my day-to-day life, I do hope it shows people what those closest to the case have been saying from the beginning,” Taylor said in the statement.

“Ross was a loving and proud father to Cooper. At the same time Ross was being a terrible husband. These two things can and did exist at the same time.”

‘I love my son and all but we both need escapes’

Harris spent a lot of time sending messages on a dating website or communicating with women via the Whisper messaging app, which encourages users to share intimate secrets online.

The hours before his son died were no different, according to the state Supreme Court’s recounting of the trial evidence.

Just after midnight on June 18, 2014, Harris messaged a then 17-year-old girl he began contacting when she was 16. There were also exchanges with a 21-year-old woman about their previous sexual encounter in his SUV earlier that year.

At 12:48 a.m., Harris also conducted a Google search for child passport fees — apparently related to a family cruise that Taylor later told jurors they were planning with in-laws and their children.

Between 5:46 and 5:49 that morning, Harris sent or exchanged more online messages with at least three women.

Taylor left for work about 7:15 a.m. Cooper played and watched cartoons at home for the next 45 minutes while dad responded to four Whisper posts — three of them sexual in nature.

Cooper and his father left home about 8:30 a.m. Harris strapped the toddler in the red car seat in the middle of the SUV’s back row — less than four inches from the driver’s seat but facing the tinted rear windows.

Harris would later tell police that they were running late that morning. The day care center stopped serving kids breakfast at 8:45 a.m. Harris responded to two Whisper posts and an email from a co-worker on the way to Chick-fil-A, where he and Cooper spent about 20 minutes having breakfast.

In the restaurant, Harris responded to a Whisper post that read: “I hate being married with kids. The novelty has worn off, and I have nothing to show for it.”

“I miss having time by myself and going out with friends,” Harris wrote.

He followed with two other messages: “My wife is upset when I want to go out with friends,” and “I love my son and all but we both need escapes.”

Harris and Cooper left the restaurant about 9:20 a.m.

“Ready, let’s go,” Harris said after putting his son back in the car seat and giving him a kiss, according to the lead detective on the case.

Cooper gave his dad a kiss.

After a traffic light, Harris continued driving straight to his office — about four minutes away — rather than making a left turn to the day care center. He pulled into the office parking lot, found a space and walked to his cubicle.

At work, Harris exchanged various messages with people.

A travel agent sent him information on the family cruise. He looked up one cruise line. There were messages with a paramour and responses to various Whisper posts — including telling one user that his son woke him at 5:30 that morning.

“He’s awesome,” Harris wrote back, referring to his son.

At 11:38 a.m., Harris went out to lunch with coworkers at a Publix. They also stopped at a Home Depot store where Harris purchased light bulbs. They dropped Harris off at the parking lot, where surveillance video showed him leaving a bag with the bulbs on the front seat of the Tucson at 12:42 p.m.

A test showed car seat temperature reached 125 degrees

The temperature at 12:58 p.m. that day was about 88 degrees, according to the ruling by the state’s highest court.

An expert tested temperatures on the car seat in the SUV, parked in the same space, three weeks after Cooper’s death. The outside temperature was similar on both days. The car seat temperatures ranged from 88 degrees at 11:35 a.m. to 125 degrees at about 3:30 p.m.

At his cubicle that afternoon, Harris messaged women for a few hours, including one in which he asked a woman for a picture of her breasts. She sent a photo. He also asked the minor for a picture of her breast — which she sent.

“Yummy,” Harris wrote back.

There were other messages, sexual in nature, with at least two other women. Harris sent one woman a picture of his penis.

At 3:16 p.m. Harris wrote Taylor: “When are you getting my buddy.”

During a subsequent phone conversation Taylor agreed to pick up Cooper at the day care center. Harris was going to a movie with his friends after work.

At 4:16 p.m. Harris got into the SUV. He drove off a few seconds later. He later told police that he saw Cooper sitting in the back seat while looking to change lanes on his way to the movie theater.

Harris pulled into a parking lot about two miles from where he worked. He removed Cooper from the car seat and put him on the pavement.

“What have I done?” he yelled repeatedly, according to witnesses.

“I’ve killed my son.”

“She’s going to kill me.”

One witness testified at trial that Harris tried to do CPR but did it incorrectly.

The witness performed CPR though “it was almost immediately clear to him that Cooper was dead,” according to the state Supreme Court ruling.

Harris walked away and paced while on his phone. Two witnesses called 911. Police arrived at 4:24 p.m.

One officer tried CPR. Another officer described Harris as going from “calm to shrieking to calm again.”

“It just seemed very random and very odd,” the officer said.

Yet another officer testified that Harris alternated between a calm state and a “monotone yelling” she said seemed “real forced,” according to the ruling.

Harris was asked for identification.

“Shut the f**k up, my son just died,” he told one officer. Harris was handcuffed and taken to the back of a police car.

Harris later told police he had forgotten to drop off Cooper at day care. He had also forgotten to take a “second look” at the car seat before leaving the SUV.

“I swore I dropped him off,” Harris insisted.

A crime scene technician described the back of the SUV as reeking of a “hot, musty, urine-soaked diaper.”

Prosecuting parents ‘not the answer,’ mom says

During questioning by detectives that day, Harris at one point began to cry.

“Oh, god.”

“My boy.”

“Why?”

Harris told police that despite ordinary “ups and downs” his marriage with Taylor was good. He said leaving Cooper in the SUV was “an accident” and that he had seen a news report about a man who had left his child in a car and then became an advocate.

“The … worst fear for me is to leave my son in a hot car,” Harris told detectives.

After being told that he was being arrested for felony murder and cruelty to children, Harris was allowed to speak with Taylor. He cried and insisted the death was an accident. Harris told her Cooper was “in Heaven and his time on earth is done.”

An autopsy showed Cooper died of hyperthermia. The toddler likely would have had suffered nausea, a headache, anxiety and possibly seizures, a medical examiner testified at the trial.

Cooper likely struggled as he became more uncomfortable. Small abrasions on his head, hands and feet were likely caused from the painful rubbing against hot parts of the car seat, according to the medical examiner.

Taylor, day care teachers, relatives and friends of both Taylor and Harris testified that he was “a loving, caring, and involved father,” the Supreme Court ruling said. There was no evidence he had previously abused the boy.

On November 14, 2016, Harris was found guilty on all charges after nearly three and half days of jury deliberations.

The following month he was sentenced to life in prison without parole for malice murder and consecutive sentences of 20 years for first-degree child cruelty, 10 years for attempt to commit sexual exploitation of a child, and one year for each count of dissemination of harmful material to a minor.

Georgia’s Supreme Court ruled that evidence submitted by prosecutors of Harris’ extramarital sexual relationships — which the state portrayed as the motivation for killing his son — had unfair prejudicial impact on the jury.

The day after the ruling, Taylor said “overreaching” Cobb County prosecutors and “their misuse of power” ultimately led to the court’s decision.

“It’s been 8 years since Cooper died and children have continued to die the same way every year,” she said in her statement. “Wasting precious resources prosecuting the parents that this happens to is not the answer.”

Taylor urged legislators to “put the money into what could actually save the lives” with laws requiring devices that can “stop these tragedies.”

In late June 2014, Taylor told mourners at her son’s funeral that Harris was “a wonderful daddy” and that “Cooper meant the world to him.”

Taylor said she had worried about not being able to have a child. She recalled the joy she felt the day Cooper was born — “a 6-pound, 8-ounce perfect baby.”

“As children do, he turned our lives upside down,” she said. “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

The last two nights of Cooper’s life, Taylor said, he had trouble sleeping and ended up in bed between her and Harris.

“I remember turning over in the middle of the night, his mouth was open and his full toddler lips just breathing right into my face,” she said. “I will cherish that moment forever.”

Harris was allowed to call the funeral service in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, from the Cobb County Jail outside Atlanta. He briefly addressed the crowd by speaker phone.

“Thank you for everything you’ve done for my boy,” he said.

“I’m just sorry I can’t be there,” he added.

After the service, Taylor followed her son’s casket out of the church while still on the phone with Harris.

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CNN’s Rebekah Riess, Dakin Andone, Jarrod Wardwell, Jason Hanna, Travis Caldwell, Amanda Musa, Amy Simonson, Laura James, Scottie Andrew, AJ Willingham, Tina Burnside, Mayra Cuevas, Eliott C. McLaughlin, Marlena Baldacci, Nick Valencia, Jennifer Henderson and Jamiel Lynch.

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