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Details of toddler’s final hours elicit raw emotion in hot car trial


Justin Ross Harris broke down repeatedly Tuesday as prosecutors detailed his son’s final hours, in pictures and words.

It was the sort of emotion seemingly not on display the night of his son’s death. Surveillance video from the Cobb County Jail, taken after he was arrested for allegedly killing his 22-month-old boy, shows Harris appearing composed and relaxed. Witness Mark Wilson, in jail for a DUI, said Harris engaged in small talk and didn’t act like someone who had just lost a child.

Cobb police decided to charge Harris because they found his behavior off-putting following Cooper’s death. Prosecutors have attempted to make that point throughout the trial, with mixed results. Their latest effort was likely undermined by Wilson’s admission that he sold his account to The National Enquirer for $2,000. And, as defense attorney Carlos Rodriguez noted, the footage from inside the Cobb jail was cherry-picked and contained no audio.

There was no doubting the impact of testimony Tuesday morning detailing the agony experienced by Cooper in the backseat of his father’s SUV.

At least one of the jurors was also overcome with emotion as former Cobb Medical Examiner Brian Frist dispassionately described the toddler’s final hours, illustrated by graphic autopsy photos.

Death did not come quickly for Cooper, said Frist. Just how long the boy was able to survive in the stifling heat is unknown, and that’s significant.

Frist said he was told by a Cobb police officer that the temperature inside the car remained in the low 90s throughout the morning of June 18, 2014.

“(Cooper) could’ve survived that,” Frist said. Whether he was still alive when Harris stopped by his car to drop off some light bulbs about three hours and 15 minutes after leaving his son locked inside remains a mystery.

The high temperature that day reached 92 degrees outside; some estimates had the temperature inside the 2011 Hyundai Tucson at or near 140 degrees.

Cooper experienced a wide array of maladies as his organs began to shut down, Frist testified.

“The phases he would have experienced, could have experienced, likely included nausea,” he said. “He would have had a headache. He would become dehydrated. He may have had seizures. He probably would have struggled as he was becoming more and more uncomfortable.”

Frist said he doubted there would have been any odor of decomposition emanating from inside the vehicle. Previously, three Cobb police officers testified they smelled a stench associated with death.

“I don’t believe you have decomposition of smells per se,” the medical examiner said. “I don’t think that type of smell was there. But when we get to 4 p.m. in the afternoon you’d have a stale odor of someone who had been breathing a long period of time, sweating a long period of time, gases released from GI tract, urinating.”

A stale odor, “a different smell than normal,” would’ve likely been present, Frist said.

Jurors were also shown surveillance video from the Home Depot Treehouse office showing Harris arriving at work, returning to his car at lunchtime, and then driving away from work that afternoon.

At 9:25 a.m. he can be seen passing an open space before backing up and driving into an open spot. Harris had just returned from a nearby Chick-fil-A where he and Cooper ate breakfast. Harris sat in his car for 33 seconds before exiting the vehicle.

About three hours later, Harris was dropped off at his car by co-workers Alex Hall and Winston Milling. They had just gone to lunch and had stopped at a Home Depot 0n the way back so Harris could buy some light bulbs.

The defendant is seen on the video walking to his car, opening his door and tossing the bulbs inside.

Questioned by Rodriguez, Home Depot security officer Greg Sanders acknowledged that Harris never bent down far enough to get inside his SUV. Rodriguez asked if his head ever went below the roof line.

“The head is out,” Sanders said.

It’s an important distinction because, had Harris looked inside the vehicle, he would have surely seen Cooper.

The surveillance video also showed Harris leaving work at about 4:15 p.m.

Harris can be seen walking across the parking lot and entering his SUV at 4:16 p.m. Just three seconds later, he drove away, with Cooper’s lifeless body still strapped into his car seat.


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