Like many people, I’ve followed the coverage of the tragic death of Cooper Harris, the toddler who suffocated in his father’s car June 18 in Cobb County.
Although possible, as of this writing, I seriously doubt Cooper Harris was murdered. Here’s what may have happened:
His dad, Ross Harris, pulled into the Akers Mill shopping center parking lot as he was discovering he’d just made the biggest mistake of his life. He’d accidentally killed his own son. He’d left his son, whom he loved, in the car that morning.
“What have I done?” he cried.
He was “uncooperative with police,” in the minutes that followed. He cursed one officer and told a female officer to “Shut up!” I’m guessing that the officers took those remarks in stride.
Then comes Detective Phillip Stoddard. He hasn’t seen the display of raw emotion that one eyewitness called, “definitely genuine,” and all the cops on the scene had accepted at face value. He speaks with Harris, who makes a poor first impression when he was not completely truthful with his answers about who he’d been calling on his cellphone.
Detective Stoddard hears the stories of Harris’ disrespect toward the uniformed officers. I suspect Harris’ remarks — retold — offended the detective more than they did the officers themselves.
Stoddard then has to “process” the death car in the hot sun, a time-consuming and gruesome procedure. Stoddard sees and smells the results of Harris’ carelessness. He questions the depth of Harris’ stupidity. How could anyone be so dumb? And this smell, how could anyone miss this smell?
He factors in the disrespect toward the uniformed officers, one of them a woman. It’s hot. A shade tent was eventually brought in. And somewhere between hot and bothered, Stoddard concludes that whether Harris is guilty of anything or not, he needs to be taught a lesson.
The detective has played a game of character assassination by innuendo with Harris. Leaks to the media about everyday activities, like the Internet searches and the noonday trip to the car, have been cast as fraught with hidden meaning.
When Leanna Harris backed her husband at their son’s funeral, the innuendos started toward her. Whether he intended to or not, lacking any hard evidence, Stoddard has cultivated a self-sustaining tide of negative public opinion toward the Harris’. The sexting revelations served no public purpose, but ensured lots of public attention for the duration of the case.
Now, all this could stop at the grand jury phase — or sooner. Most grand jurors in Georgia are never even told of the tremendous authority they have. Prosecutors rarely bring them frivolous cases so it’s unusual for a grand jury to ever need to be anything but a rubber stamp for prosecutors.
It would thrill me to see an act of courage from a Cobb County grand jury. They could send Harris home to face his wife instead of sending him to face a judge and jury.
Harris has lost his son, his job, his freedom and probably his wife. His search for justice will likely cost him most of whatever else he has. I hope he finds it.
The whole case reminds me of the Leo Frank/Mary Phagan murder case a century ago. And all we know what happened to Frank.
So, I’m writing not so much to help Harris as I am to excuse my own silence.
Allen B. Goodwin of Roswell is the co-author of “The Winecoff Fire: The Untold Story of America’s Deadliest Hotel Fire.”