A Georgia father convicted of murder after leaving his toddler son in a hot car two summers ago was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole on Monday.
Jurors last month convicted Justin Ross Harris of malice murder and other charges in the June 18, 2014, death of his 22-month-old son, Cooper, who was left in a Hyundai Tucson for seven hours in sweltering heat. Jurors believed Harris left the little boy to die on purpose.
Harris, 35, was also convicted of eight counts of malice murder, felony murder, cruelty to children in the first and second degree, sexual exploitation of and dissemination of harmful material to minors.
The prosecutor, Chuck Boring, said at the hearing that Harris was “driven by his own selfishness” and that Cooper died in the most “tortuous, horrific, unimaginable way possible” before recommending Harris serve the maximum sentence of life in prison without parole, plus 32 years to serve consecutively.
Neither Harris, who appeared Monday in an orange jumpsuit and shackles, nor his attorneys chose to present any mitigating evidence at the sentencing hearing.
Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley Clark said the court found that Harris “intentionally and unnecessarily” inflicted “wanton, severe physical and mental pain and agony” upon his son.
“What factually was a horrendous horrific experience for this 22-month old child who had been placed in the trust of his father and in violation and dereliction of duty to that child, if not love of that child, callously walked away and left that child in a hot car in June in Georgia in the summer to swelter and die,” she said.
Clark then accepted the prosecution’s recommendation for the maximum sentence.
On the morning of Cooper's death, Harris was supposed to drop off his son at a daycare before heading to work at a Home Depot in the suburbs outside Atlanta.
The two went to a Chick-fil-A for breakfast that morning, according to prosecutors, and then instead of taking his son to day care, Harris parked his car at the lot by the Home Depot and left Cooper before heading in to work. The child’s cause of death was listed as hyperthermia.
Harris’ case drew national attention after it was revealed that the then-married Harris had been sending sexually explicit text messages to multiple women and underage girls. Harris’ wife of ten years, Leanna Taylor, filed for divorce as the case progressed. There was no evidence connecting her to Cooper’s death, nor has she ever charged in connection with it, her attorney said in a statement after Harris was convicted.
Prosecutors argued that Harris left Cooper to die in an attempt to rid himself of parental responsibility as he continued to pursue sexual relationships with prostitutes and the women he met online. Some of the explicit messages were sent the day Cooper died, they said.
Investigators had also said in pre-trial testimony that five days prior to Cooper's death Harris had watched a viral video online in which a veterinarian demonstrates to pet owners the effects of being left in a hot car.
The defense contended that while Harris was responsible for leaving Cooper in his car that day, his actions were not criminal and instead a tragic accident.
They argued that Harris forgot his son was in the car because he had changed his routine that morning. Prosecutors countered the Chick-fil-A was less than a mile away from the Home Depot.
Lead defense attorney Maddox Kilgore had told jurors that while Harris did engage in “immoral sexual behavior,” he had been attempting to turn his life around.