(CNN, July 3, 2014) — Justin Ross Harris messaged six women, sending and receiving explicit texts — some including nude images — from work while his 22-month-old was dying in a hot car, a detective testified Thursday in the father’s hearing on murder and child cruelty charges.
Harris’ attorney repeatedly objected to Cobb County, Georgia, police Detective Phil Stoddard’s testimony regarding Harris sexting the women — one of whom was 17 — but the judge allowed it because it was a probable cause hearing.
In addition to the charges he faces in connection with his son’s death, Harris may be charged with felony sexual exploitation of a minor and misdemeanor illegal contact with a minor, Stoddard said.
A prosecutor insisted that the testimony helped portray the defendant’s state of mind and spoke to the negligence angle and helped establish motive, as his wife told police she and Harris were having “intimacy problems,” according to the detective.
Police say Harris, 33, left his toddler, Cooper, strapped into a car seat under a baking sun for seven hours while he went to work. Records show that the mercury topped 92 on June 18, and police say the temperature was 88 degrees when the boy was pronounced dead in a parking lot not far from his father’s workplace.
Stoddard also recounted witnesses telling police Harris was acting erratically when he pulled into a shopping center asking for assistance with his son.
Witnesses told police they heard “squealing tires, and the vehicle came to a stop,” Stoddard testified. Harris exited the vehicle yelling, “Oh, my God, what have I done?” Stoddard said.
The 33-year-old father then stood there with a blank look on his face, the detective said. When a witness told Harris his son needed CPR, Harris went to the other side of his vehicle and made a phone call, apparently to tell someone his son was dead, a witness told police, according to Stoddard.
Harris never called 911, and when an officer told him to get off his phone, he refused and even said, “F*** you” before an officer took his phone and handcuffed him, the detective said.
Harris later made statements that police felt were strange, including “I can’t believe this is happening to me” and “I’ll be charged with a felony,” according to Stoddard. Harris also talked about losing his job, he said.
The detective alleged that Harris told police he couldn’t reach anyone on his telephone, but phone records show that Harris made three calls, and one between him and his employer lasted six minutes, Stoddard said.
Meanwhile, when the boy’s mother, Leanna Harris, arrived at a day care center to pick the boy up, employees there told her Cooper had never been dropped off, the detective said.
“Ross must have left him in the car,” she replied, according to Stoddard. Witnesses said they tried to tell her many other things could have happened, but Leanna Harris insisted that Ross Harris must have left him in the car, Stoddard said.
The detective also said that when Ross and Leanna Harris were in an interview room, Ross Harris told his wife that Cooper looked “peaceful” and his eyes were closed when he was removed from the vehicle.
He told his wife, “I dreaded how he would look,” Stoddard said, adding that the boy’s eyes and mouth were not closed when he was taken out of the SUV.
Ross Harris was scheduled to meet friends for a 5 p.m. movie, “22 Jump Street,” Stoddard said, but he told them he’d be late. He left work at 4:16 p.m., and it would have taken him about 10 minutes to get to the theater, the detective said.
Messages between Leanna and Ross indicate that the two were having financial problems, the detective said. Ross Harris had recently been passed over for a promotion, and the couple had two insurance policies on Cooper, one for $2,000 and one for $25,000, Stoddard said.
The detective further told the court that he felt Ross Harris was a flight risk because he had law enforcement experience and no family in Georgia. Stoddard also expressed concern that Ross Harris had a “second life he’s living, with alternate personalities and alternate personas.”
Dozens of reporters and spectators showed up before the hearing began. They filled the courtroom, with about 20 people left to stand. Leanna Harris held another woman’s hand and appeared emotional when her husband was brought into the courtroom in an orange prison jumpsuit.
At the probable cause hearing, a judge will determine whether there’s enough evidence to support charges of murder and second-degree child cruelty against Ross Harris. If prosecutors are successful in making their case to the judge, it will proceed to a grand jury, where the district attorney will seek an indictment.
It’s possible but unlikely that Harris and his wife will testify, district attorney spokeswoman Kim Isaza said.
Harris, who is being held without bail, has pleaded not guilty.