Mistake or murder?

On average, 37 children die in the US every year by being left in hot cars. Some are left purposely, in the same way as one might leave a dog, by well meaning but busy parents who underestimate the time they’ll be away and the incredible speed with which temperatures can rise to fatal levels. The police said that when 22-month old Cooper Harris died that why, it was for a far darker reason. But were they right?

In July 2012 a video showing a man locked inside a car as temperatures rose to deadly levels went viral. In just thirty minutes, the temperature rose from 95°F to 117°F, and you can see from the video below the incredible discomfort that a healthy, fit adult finds himself in.

Dr Ernie Ward, a North Carolina veterinarian, made the video to highlight the dangers of leaving pets locked in hot cars. As Ward says, it’s a lousy way to die, and Ward relates a story in which he observed a dog locked in a car outside his own clinic starting to suffer from the heat. The well-meaning owner had popped into the clinic for two minutes to pick something up, but two stretched into ten, and then into fifteen. It’s a lousy but all too easily preventable way to die.

On average, 37 children die the same way in the United States every year. Some are left purposely, in the same way as the dog above, by well meaning but busy parents who underestimate the time they’ll be away and the incredible speed with which temperatures can rise to fatal levels. 

In August 2018, Garland County Circuit Judge Wade Naramore was acquitted of negligent homicide over the death of his son Thomas, who was a week short of being eighteen months old. He’d been locked in a car for five hours as his father went to work and then ran errands for his upcoming fifth wedding anniversary. Thomas’ core body temperature was determined to be 107.2°F, against a normal temperature of 98.6°F. As part of his defence, the judge’s sister-in-law admitted that she had twice forgotten her own child had been inside the car whilst driving and only remembered once she’d parked up.

When a car or other vehicle is left in the sun, shortwave radiation passes through the windows and warms the air inside, but only a small amount. This type of radiation is more effective at heating the fixtures inside – the seats, the dashboard, the steering wheel, even the child seats – and the heat that they give off quickly warms the trapped air by convection. The temperature of these fittings can reach 180-200°F.

When this happens the body’s core temperature can increase rapidly. Within a short term someone trapped inside a hot vehicle will suffer ‘neurological dysfunction, nausea, disorientation, delirium and seizures’. They will go into shock, as their heart rate skyrockets at the effort of training to cool the body. Eventually, hyperthermia sets in as the body is overwhelmed by this effort. Dehydration and electrolyte abnormalities occur which leads to heart and breathing issues. The skin becomes discoloured, and internal organs begin to shut down. This is what was happening to Dr Ward, who lasted only 20 minutes in those conditions. For a young child, these conditions could begin to manifest 3 to 5 times quicker.  

*     *     *

The recently concluded podcast series “Breakdown: death in a hot car – mistake or murder?” [] from the Atlanta Journal Constitution covered a very similar case. Presented by veteran crime correspondent Bill Rankin, this second season of the podcast was a stop-start affair, having to deal with a trial that was suddenly put on hold, moved to a new location, and then paused again so that everyone could shelter from Hurricane Matthew. 

On June 18th 2014, Justin Ross Harris left his son in the back of his SUV for a full day whilst he went to work. Harris maintains that it was an horrific accident, and that he meant to drop 22 month old Cooper at childcare. Even when he got back in his car at the end of the day, Harris didn’t realise his son’s body was in the back. It was only part way through his journey that he realised little Cooper was back there, veering suddenly off the road, into a parking lot to pull his son out of the child seat and search for any sign of life. There was none. Cooper had died in the back of the car, unable to cry out for his daddy, his protector, his best friend, the man who in family videos strummed his guitar and sang to his son before eventually perching the little boy on his knee and letting him strum along himself to childish squeals of delight. When Cooper needed him most, his daddy wasn’t there. 

Three months after Cooper’s death Justin Ross Harris was indicted for his son’s murder.

Harris has always maintained that it was an unthinkable, unspeakable accident that caused the death of his son. Harris, a brilliant research scientist who has spent his entire adult life studying cancer in children, was due to drop Cooper off at daycare. As he sometimes did he took Cooper to Chick-Fil-A for breakfast on the way, an occasional treat that allowed him to spend a little 1-on-1 time with his son. He admits to being distracted by his work that morning. An experiment they had run that could have led to a potential breakthrough in the prevention of neuroblastoma had not yielded the expected results and the team, of which Harris was the lead, was despondent and confused by the results.

It was in the SUV, shortly after pulling out of the Chick-Fil-A parking lot, that Harris had his eureka moment. Pausing to make the critical turn that would have taken him to the daycare centre, his mind was focussing on a different problem. He suddenly understood why the experiment had not yielded the correct results. The breakthrough that they had been seeking was in sight. Instead of turning right to go to the daycare centre, he turned left and went straight to work.

There is an oft-repeated but ultimately misquoted statistic about the brain having seven (+/-2) memory registers. That is to say, the normal adult brain can hold between 5 and 9 pieces of information in short term memory before one gets pushed out on learning something new. In fact, the format that the information takes and the way it is chunked together are vitally important to retention and can affect that number substantially. But it is essentially true that we can only hold a certain amount of information in short term memory at any one time and when something new muscles its way in, something else leaves quietly by the back door. 

This was the crux of Harris’ defence. The sudden distraction was so great that instead of making the turn right that he made so often to the daycare centre, he turned the other way and went to work instead, forgetting all about his son in the rear facing car seat and making the same mistake that so many other families make in the US every year.

The state disagreed, calling it murder and stating that Harris meant to kill his son that day. 

At trial the defence called Cooper’s mum, Leanna, who swore that there was no way that her husband intentionally killed their son. 

Taylor described Harris as a good father who was hands-on and enjoyed time with his son.

“Based on everything that I knew that day, Ross must have left him in the car. That was the only thing that made sense. The only thing that clicked in my mind as even a remote possibility,” Leanna said. “He must have forgot.”

Other people who knew Harris spoke about times that he talked to them about how much he loved Cooper, and they were in no doubt that he was sincere. The jury was shown the video of Harris playing guitar for Cooper and the little boy’s delight at being allowed to play along. 

Harris and his wife had been planning on a joint family vacation, a cruise, with Harris’ brother and his family. Internet records show that only the night before Cooper died, Harris had been researching how to get a passport for his son.

The police were convinced that not only had Harris meant to kill his son, but that he’d planned to do it for some time.

At the probable cause hearing before the trial, police had told the judge that Harris had been researching ‘how to live a child-free life’ and ‘how long does it take to die in a hot car’. At trial the defence forced the police to admit that neither of these things were true. There was evidence that Harris had viewed a subreddit on living child-free, but a co-worker testified that he sent Harris the link and Harris had not researched it himself. Although Harris clicked on the link, it was quickly closed and he replied, “Grossness” to the friend who sent the link.

Detective Ray Yager admitted during the trial that although they had checked Harris’ numerous computers, mobile phones and external hard drives, there was no evidence that Harris had ever undertaken such research or googled any incriminating terms. Police also admitted that they suspected Cooper’s mum Leanna to have knowledge of the plan, if not to be actively working together. They refused to rule out any future investigation into Leanna or confirm that she was no longer a suspect, merely stating that she was not part of any active, ongoing investigation at that time.

Whilst Cooper was dying in the car – in all likelihood, had already died – Harris spent lunchtime with friends from his team. While they were out at lunch, Harris picked up some lightbulbs for home. He opened the door of his SUV and without really looking, just threw them inside. The state argued that he must have been able to see his son, but chose to ignore it. Low quality CCTV footage shows that Harris’ eyeline never drops below the roof of his car, so his view of the interior must have been obscured. The jury were taken to view the car – the murder weapon, as the state referred to it – and allowed to look around and inside it to form their own opinion about what Harris could see. 

All told, the jury heard from 70 witnesses and saw 1,150 pieces of evidence during the five-week trial. The six women and six men of the jury deliberated for 21 hours, over four days, before returning to find Harris guilty of two counts of murder and three counts of child cruelty. On December 5th 2016 he was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.

Justin Ross Harris will not be breathing free air for a long, long time. And here, the sad story of little Cooper, his grieving father and a potential cure for childhood cancer ends. 

*     *     *

Plot twist: not quite

Justin Ross Harris and his potential cancer cure are not lost to the world forever. They never existed. Harris is not a selfless scientist on the verge of a Nobel-winning breakthrough, he’s a serial adulterer, sexter, liar, cheat and a bit of a horny dickhead, to be quite honest. 

On the fateful day when he turned the wrong way and his son died, he wasn’t distracted by a failed experiment, he was distracted by the women with whom he was sexting, swapping graphic personal pictures and arranging hookups for casual sex; six in total that day, one of whom was a minor. Harris was also found guilty on charges relating to lewd behaviour with a minor.

The other people who testified about how much Harris loved his son were not just family and friends, they were women that Harris had met up with for illicit liaisons, for oral sex in his car, for sex. They sat in front of Leanna, Cooper’s mum and Harris’ wife, testifying about the messages they’d swapped, pictures they’d sent, hookups they’d arranged, sex acts they’d committed and how utterly Harris loved his little boy. 

The state’s case for premeditated murder seemed to make little sense and is littered with implausibilities and contradictions. 

  • The core of the state’s murder case was that Harris wanted Cooper out of the way so that he could be free to lead the life he wanted. The defence argued that he was already living it. His wife, his marriage, his faith and his son were no impediment to his polyamorous personal life. Leanna had already discovered certain indiscretions once before, and forgiven him. As Freud wrote, there’s a personality type who actually draws excitement from the secrets and deviousness, lying and calculated deception. If this personality type applies to Harris (and if Freud was right, I guess), he was already living the life he wanted. He had his cake, and ate it whenever he wanted.
  • If he wanted to live a child-free life, the easiest thing to do was simply leave Leanna. He’d get to sleep around to his heart’s content, and he’d still get to see his little boy.
  • If he wanted to kill Cooper, there were so many easier ways to go about it that would look much more plausible – a fall downstairs, drinking tablets or chemicals that were carelessly left lying around. The death that Cooper suffered was slow, painful, and horrific. It doesn’t bear thinking about how much Cooper must have suffered, how long for, and how scared and panicked he must have been. No one testified that Harris had exhibited any behaviour that would account for Harris wanting to put Cooper through that (just the opposite), and the police produced no evidence of it.
  • If he suddenly decided, that morning, that that was how he was going to kill Cooper, why go through the charade with the light bulbs? That just makes the ‘forgot’ line harder to swallow. You’d stay well away from the car all day if you’d planned it. 
  • The state maintained that Harris killed his son to make it easier to live his duplicitous lifestyle based around as much sex with as many partners as he could get. For a long time, the police were sure that Leanna was part of the conspiracy too, which makes no sense – how could Leanna be part of a conspiracy that made it easier for Harris to cheat on her behind her back? The police were still refusing to rule that theory out even at trial, stopping short of saying that Leanna was no longer a suspect but pointedly stating that she was “not currently part of any ongoing investigation”. They refused to say that she was no longer under suspicion even at trial.
  • Harris worked as an IT Manager. If he had really been researching how to live child-free, he would have known that his computers and other internet-enabled devices would be seized and searched and he would have made an attempt to cover his tracks. He didn’t. In fact, rather than delete the apps he was using to sext other women to hide his behaviour, he continued to use them after his son died, believing that he’d made an awful mistake rather than committed a grievous crime. This gave police a clear avenue to start investigating his behaviour, but one that could easily have been avoided by an IT professional.

In the end – in my personal opinion – he wasn’t punished for the death of his son. He was punished for his indiscretions. He was punished for cheating on his wife and making his son suffer as a result. That makes him guilty of failing in his duty of care, and I do believe that he should have been punished for that. But I don’t believe that he intended to kill his son that day in that manner.

And that was the point of the whole story about being a cancer scientist – it was a thought experiment to see whether you felt differently about him when you thought Cooper died as a result of being distracted by a noble cause. It’s my contention that the jury felt differently about Cooper because they saw him as some sort of sex-mad pervert. Remember, the state did not prove the charge of wanting to live a child-life – that was, well let’s be charitable and say that that was a result of a police misunderstanding rather than an outright invention by them. Harris did not research how to live a child-free life, that link was sent to him by someone else and he replied to it with distaste. The evidence – the fact that Harris was trying to buy his son a passport for a trip they had arranged shows that Harris was still planning for a future with his son in it. The police were unable to prove their motive, and you can tell they were groping around in the dark by the fact that they’re still unsure as to whether Leanna was complicit in a plot to facilitate her own husband’s secret infidelities. 

In the end, what is the core difference between what happened to Harris, who was sentenced to life without parole, and Judge Wade Naramore, who was acquitted of all charges? Cooper was sexting, Naramore was planning a party. Both were distracted by something frivolous. If you remove the unproven motive of wanting to live child-free, there is no difference between the crimes. The conclusion therefore is that the jury punished him because of Harris’ activities whilst his son was dying, and that does not constitute justice.


This is really interesting – this is Harris’ route plotted out on Google Maps:

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