Judge denies bond for father charged in son's hot car death

MARIETTA, Ga. -- A judge denied bond for the father charged in the hot car death of his 22-month-old son.The judge also found probable cause for the charges against Justin Ross Harris.

It was standing-room only in courtroom "P" for the probable cause hearing. Harris pleaded not guilty to child cruelty and murder charges after his son, Cooper, died in the back of his hot car on June 18.

More than a dozen people identifying themselves as family of the defendant filled one side of the courtroom. Overflow observers stood in the back of the room and squeezed into the empty jury box.

DETECTIVE: Harris was living a double life

Cobb County detective Phil Stoddard was the first person to take the stand.

Stoddard testified that on the morning of the boy's death, Harris brought his son to breakfast at Chick-fil-A, located .6 miles away from his daycare. Stoddard said that surveillance video showed Cooper was alert and happy at the restaurant. Harris told the detective that he gave Cooper a kiss and Cooper kissed him back as he strapped him into his car seat.

Harris was supposed to take his son to daycare, but instead he went straight to work.

Harris arrived at his work, The Home Depot, around 9:25 a.m., according to the time stamp on surveillance footage. Harris was picked up by two friends for lunch. They ate at a nearby Publix, and stopped at a Home Depot, where Harris bought some light bulbs. Surveillance footage showed Harris return to his car and toss some items into his vehicle.

Stoddard testified that Harris never told them during questioning that he'd returned to his vehicle during lunch.

Harris had planned on going to a movie at 5 p.m. with his friends. On the way to the movies, Harris quickly pulled over into the Akers Mills shopping center on Cumberland Drive and pulled Cooper from the back seat of his SUV and placed him on the ground. A witness said that he performed CPR on the boy as Harris made phone calls.

Stoddard said that witnesses reported that Harris told someone by phone by Cooper had died. Harris told detectives that he never reached anyone by phone, Stoddard testified.

Stoddard testified that Harris never cried during questioning. He testified that Cooper's mother and Harris' wife, Leanna, responded calmly to the news of boy's death. Detectives heard Leanna's mother get very emotional on the phone with her daughter, asking, "Why aren't you crying?" to which Leanna replied, "I must be in shock."

The detective testified that when Harris and his wife were reunited, "it was all about [Ross Harris]." Stoddard said that Harris asked "What are we going to do?" mentioning that he might lose his job and be charged with a felony. Leanna Harris asked Ross "How much did you tell them?" according to the detective.

The detective also stated that Leanna arrived at Cooper's daycare to pick him up. When she found out that Ross hadn't dropped him off, Leanna stated, "Ross must have left him in the car," according to a daycare worker.

Stoddard testified that Ross Harris told his wife that Cooper "looked at peace" with his eyes and mouth closed. Leanna said, "I dreaded how he would look," the detective testified. Stoddard stated that according to the pictures he saw of Cooper after his death, the boy's eyes and mouth were not closed.

Stoddard stated that on the day of his son's death, Ross Harris was having online conversations with six different women, including a 16-year-old. One woman said that Ross "wanted to hook up." Several explicit pictures were sent, beginning in the morning and lasting throughout the day, according to Stoddard.

Harris' attorney objected to the district attorney's questioning about the texting, but the district attorney said that would argue that Harris was in an unhappy marriage and wanted a "childless life."

Stoddard testified that on June 5, one of the women texting Ross asked, "Do you have a conscience?" to which Harris replied, "Nope."

Harris had two life insurance policies on Cooper, one for $2,000 and another for $25,000, Stoddard testified.

Stoddard stated that Harris had viewed topics on the Reddit website including one that showed people's deaths, and had visited a website advocating a child-free life. He had also searched "how to survive prison," according to the detective's testimony.

Under cross-examination, Stoddard admitted that it's not known if Harris had specifically searched for those topics, noting that Reddit is a website with many topics. The exact date of those views is not known.

The detective said that when he told Harris he'd be charged with murder, Ross responded, "But there's no malicious intent."

The district attorney finished his probable cause questions saying that Ross Harris is a flight risk because he's living a double life.

When asked by the judge, the detective stated that it is believed Cooper had died by noon.

Under cross-examination, Harris' attorney, Maddox Kilgore, questioned the detective as to why the charge against his client had been "stepped back" from "willful" to "negligence."

Kilgore said that witnesses had stated that Harris was "hysterical" at the scene where he discovered his son's body. Kilgore stated that a parent who had lost his or her child could be in shock and dazed, which could account for Harris' behavior.

Kilgore noted that a search showed there were three light bulbs out at the Harris home, which he said showed the Home Depot lunchtime trip was legitimate.

The defense attorney noted that Harris is deaf in right ear. The child's car seat was located on that side of the vehicle.

The attorney also noted that Georgia's governor had recently launched a "Look Again" campaign designed to prevent hot car injuries, and that it had been featured on local news reports.

The detective stated that it looked like Harris had not mentioned any of the sexting during questioning, but the detective admitted he hadn't asked him about. Stoddard said that it appeared as if Harris had deleted some of the phone's texts, but they found records of the texts on other computers.

Kilgore disputed the detective's assertion that the Harris couple was having financial problems. Leanna Harris is a licensed dietitian, and worked out of their home.

Under questioning from the judge, Stoddard stated that Ross Harris routinely brought Cooper to daycare, while the mother and father had traded duties picking him up in days leading up to the death.

The detective testified that Harris had been using a rear-facing car seat in the weeks prior to the death. Previously, he had used a front-facing seat.

DEFENSE: Harris was a 'loving father'

The defense called Leonard Madden, who witnessed Harris at the scene where he found his son's body. Madden testified that Harris was screaming, "Oh my God, my son is dead, my son is dead."

RELATED: Witness: Father's pain seemed real, raw in hot car death

Next, the defense called Alex Hall, who worked with Harris at Home Depot. The two also ran a web development company together.

On the day of Cooper's death, Hall, who worked in a different building than Harris, picked up Harris and they went to lunch at Publix with a third friend. Hall said that Harris wasn't acting unusual at lunch.

After lunch, Hall dropped Harris off at this vehicle. Hall said that they had planned to go a movie after work. Hall said that Harris didn't show up for the movie.

Hall said Harris seemed like a good, caring father.

After a short recess, the defense called a third co-worker, Winston Milling, to the stand. He testified that Cooper was always happy and smiling.

Kilgore argued that there is no evidence that Harris was acting in a "willful, wanton" manner to warrant "criminal negligence" necessary in the child cruelty charge. He argued that there was no evidence that Harris knew his son was in the SUV, and surveillance video proves that.

The defense attorney said that the only purpose of bringing up Harris' sexting was to shame him, and said it had no relevance to the case.

Kilgore said that Harris forgot his child was in the SUV, noting that the governor wouldn't have begun a campaign against it if it never happened.

Kilgore likened forgetting a kid in a hot car with forgetting leftovers in a car. The district attorney responded, "This wasn't leftovers, this was a child."

The prosecutor argued that sexting was relevant because it showed that Ross Harris was doing everything but worrying about his child.

The judge said there was probable cause to sustain the charges.

The defense is now arguing for bail. First, Kilgore called Harris' brother to the stand. He testified Ross was a loving father and a good dad.

Next, the defense called a children's pastor from Stonebridge Church to the stand. She said that Harris was a "typical loving father of a toddler."


The judge denied bond for Harris. He will remain jailed as he awaits trial. The defense had asked for a $50,000 bond.

Cobb County's district attorney said he was bound by law not to discuss the evidence in an active cases, but did read a written statement from the courthouse steps:

"Today, Cobb Chief Magistrate Judge Frank Cox conducted a Probable Cause and Bond Hearing in the case of The State v. Justin Ross Harris. After hearing evidence, Judge Cox bound the case over to Superior Court on the charges of cruelty to children in the second degree and felony murder.

Procedurally, the warrant is now sent to the Cobb District Attorney's Office for disposition. The investigation by Cobb Police is still in progress, and much work remains. Once law enforcement has completed the investigation, their file will be forwarded to the District Attorney's Office for review. Only then will prosecution decisions be made. As in all cases, only two elements dictate those decisions: the facts, and the law.

Media attention and public emotion have no effect on the decisions in this case.

Ethical standards prohibit the DA's office from commenting on the evidence, and we will not violate or compromise those standards in any way. This case will run its course and we will follow wherever the evidence leads us."

Defense attorney Maddox Kilgore briefly spoke to the media, saying he said everything he planned on saying inside the courtroom.

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