ATLANTA (Reuters) - A Georgia man accused of intentionally leaving his 22-month-old son strapped inside a hot car and exchanging nude photos with women as the child was dying was indicted on three counts of murder on Thursday by a grand jury.
Justin Ross Harris, 33, could face the death penalty if convicted. In the eight-count indictment, he faces charges of malice and felony murder, as well as child cruelty and a charge related to sexual exploitation for asking a girl to send him lewd photos.
Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds said he would decide in the next two to three weeks whether to seek the death sentence.
The indictment said the suburban Atlanta father acted “with malice aforethought” when he placed his toddler in a car seat and left him in a sport utility vehicle on a day when the temperature was in the 90s F.
Prosecutors have argued that Harris deliberately left his son in the car because he wanted to live a child-free life.
Harris told police he forgot to drop his son, Cooper, off at his daycare center on his way to work and only discovered the child after he left the office that afternoon.
“The truth is, Cooper’s death was a horrible gut-wrenching accident,” Harris’ attorney, Maddox Kilgore, told reporters.
“All the eccentricities and moral failures of Ross’ life aren’t going to change that fact,” he added.
The case has drawn attention to a tragic cause of death in children. So far this year, 26 children have died of vehicle-related heat strokes in the United States, according to KidsAndCars.org. On average, the group sees 38 such deaths each year.
Although parents typically face criminal charges in about half the deaths, felony murder charges are unusual, according to the nonprofit organization, based in Kansas City, Missouri.
In July, a judge ordered Harris to remain jailed without bond, pending his trial. Investigators testified that Harris had done Internet research on living child-free and how to survive in prison before his son’s death.
He was having marital and work problems, investigators said.
Harris’ wife, Leanna, was interviewed by authorities but has not been charged in the case.
Legal analysts said the charges suggested the various legal approaches that could be pursued in seeking a conviction.
By bringing the malice murder charge - which is akin to premeditated murder - as well as felony murder charges for a death resulting from harm to the child, the state may be trying to pre-empt defense arguments, said David Weinstein, a former state prosecutor now in private practice in Miami.
“By charging both ... he (Harris) can’t stand up in front of the jury and say at best he made a poor judgment when he left his child in the car,” he said.
Writing by Letitia Stein; Editing by Peter Cooney