The investigation of a toddler's death in a hot SUV in Georgia hinges on a key question: Was the boy the victim of a horrific accident after his father simply forgot to take him to day care, or did the man know the child was inside when he left him strapped in for seven hours?
A newly filed arrest warrant supporting the murder charge against 33-year-old Justin Ross Harris states that he stopped with his son for breakfast and also returned to put something inside his vehicle around lunchtime while the child was inside it.
Harris has told police he was supposed to drive his 22-month-old son to daycare but drove straight to work on June 18 without remembering the boy was strapped in his seat. After spending the day at work, he pulled into a shopping center parking lot on the ride home and hysterically asked for help for his son.
Harris was being held without bond Wednesday. Jail records didn't list an attorney for him.
Cobb County Police Chief John Houser said Wednesday that he understands tragic accidents happen, but evidence indicates a "more serious crime" has been committed. He didn't elaborate on what the evidence was.
"The chain of events that occurred in this case do not point toward simple negligence and evidence will be presented to support this allegation," Houser said in a message released by the department.
The Cobb County Medical Examiner's Office said Wednesday that toxicology results are still pending but that it believes the cause of death was hyperthermia and the manner of death was homicide. Hyperthermia is a condition in which the temperature of the body spikes due to the heat.
The new warrant filed late Tuesday also downgrades one charge against Harris from first-degree child cruelty to second-degree child cruelty. First-degree cruelty to children requires that a person "willfully deprives the child necessary sustenance," while second-degree cruelty to children is caused by "criminal negligence" under Georgia law.
Harris put his son, Cooper, in a rear-facing car seat in the back seat of his Hyundai Tucson after eating at a Chick-fil-A restaurant the morning of the boy's death, the new warrant says. He then drove to work and left the child strapped into the car seat when he went inside, the warrant says.
At lunchtime, Harris returned to the vehicle, opened the driver's side door and placed an object inside before going back inside his workplace, the warrant says. It does not explain how the officer knows that.
Around 4:15 p.m., Harris left work and, soon after, pulled over at a shopping center and asked for help with his child, the warrant says. The child was left in the vehicle for about seven hours, the warrant says. The temperature that day was 88 degrees at 5:16 p.m., according to the first warrant in the case, filed the day after the child died.
Prosecutors may opt for the harshest charges available and then scale back in felony murder cases, said Jessica Gabel, an associate professor of law at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
"They're definitely going to look at how healthy was the child, the family's previous history, whether dad was usually somebody who was very responsible," she said. "And the defense, if this reaches a trial, will be collecting their evidence that he was a good parent, a fit parent."
Neighbors and acquaintances of Harris and his wife described them as loving parents. Harris is a native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and moved to Georgia in 2012 to work for Home Depot.
Their landlord, Joe Saini, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Harris and his wife are "very, very nice" people who were in love with their baby.
"Everything was going right for this couple," Saini said. "They wanted to buy a house so they could have some space for their child to run around the backyard."
Cory Burns, a police officer in Tuscaloosa, said Harris worked for the department as a dispatcher. Burns said his wife, Valissa, worked as a dispatcher alongside Harris and remembers that he and his wife were eager to have children but had some trouble conceiving.
Cory Burns remembers Harris as "a pretty happy guy, always down to earth." Harris brought his son back for to the department a visit recently, Burns said.
"Everyone's praying for him and his family," he said. "It's tragic."