Justin Ross Harris, the Georgia father who left his two year old son to die in a hot car, has been indicted for murder by a grand jury. Harris has claimed that he forgot to drop off his son at daycare on the hot July day that the death occurred, which is how he was left in the car. However, the investigation later revealed that both parents had researched hot car deaths on the Internet, and Harris was also sexting with various women while the car was parked at his father's office. He and his wife had two life insurances policies on their son.
Harris faces eight criminal counts: malice murder, cruelty to children in the first degree, cruelty to children in the second degree, criminal attempt to commit felony exploitation of children, two counts of felony murder, and two counts of dissemination of harmful material to minors. Harris was not granted bond. He has pled not guilty to the felony murder and second degree child cruelty charges.
Across the U.S., there is an average of 38 cases per year of child heatstroke deaths linked to being left in cars and 606 such deaths since 1998. Jan Null at the San Jose State University determined that of these 606 deaths, 111 occurred when the child was intentionally left in the car.
So far this year, there have been 26 deaths. Two of these have been in Georgia; Harris' son and the other was an unnamed two-year old girl. In the case of the young girl, her mother went inside to change a sibling's diaper and asked a relative to watch her daughter. When the mother left, her daughter was playing outside. The girl had been missing for about an hour when she found inside the car. They believe she climbed into the car herself. In this case, no charges were filed, though it seems she was neglected enough to be stuck in a car alone for an hour.
There were no cases of hot car deaths for children in 2013 or 2012 in the state of Georgia. In 2011, Andrew Leighlan Calloway's three-year-old son died in a hot car. The boy was left in a car by the owner of his day care, Shelia Henderson. Henderson left him in the car when she took her sister and two other children out to lunch. She was charged with similar charges to Harris, but far fewer of them: second degree cruelty to children, involuntary manslaughter, and reckless conduct. She pled guilty and was sentenced to ten years in prison. The same year, a five-month old was found locked in a car for five hours. A family member had forgotten her in the car, and its unclear if the parents ever pressed charges.
Hot car deaths have been few and far between for the children of Georgia, but clearly the case that have happened were are all handled quite differently. In multiple cases of neglect, the outcomes ranged from felony murder charges to involuntary manslaughter to nothing at all, though in each case, the child was left alone, directly leading to their death.
Georgia does not have a specific law on the books to deal with these cases. There are 19 states that have "Unattended Children in Vehicles Laws," and in 2004, Georgia proposed one of their how. It did not pass. Each state has their own particular version of the law. Florida, one of our warmest states, has a very comprehensive law:
FLA. STAT. ANN. § 316.6135 (2010). Leaving children unattended or unsupervised in motor vehicles; penalty; authority of law enforcement officer
(1) A parent, legal guardian, or other person responsible for a child younger than 6 years of age may not leave such child unattended or unsupervised in a motor vehicle:
(a) For a period in excess of 15 minutes;
(b) For any period of time if the motor of the vehicle is running or the health of the child is in danger.
(2) Any person who violates the provisions of paragraph (1)(a) commits a misdemeanor of the second degree punishable as provided in s. 775.082 or s. 775.083.
(3) Any person who violates the provisions of paragraph (1)(b) is guilty of a noncriminal traffic infraction, punishable by a fine not less than $ 50 and not more than $ 500.
(4) Any person who violates subsection (1) and in so doing causes great bodily harm, permanent disability, or permanent disfigurement to a child commits a felony of the third
degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082, s. 775.083, or s. 775.084.
(5) Any law enforcement officer who observes a child left unattended or unsupervised in a motor vehicle in violation of subsection (1) may use whatever means are reasonably necessary to protect the minor child and to remove the child from the vehicle.
(6) If the child is removed from the immediate area, notification should be placed on the vehicle.
(7) The child shall be remanded to the custody of the Department of Children and Family Services pursuant to chapter 39, unless the law enforcement officer is able to locate the parents or legal guardian or other person responsible for the child.
Other states have a version of this law, taking bits and pieces as they deem appropriate. Florida clearly defines violations of this law as a felony, as do Connecticut, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, and Missouri.
In Georgia, however, the charges are open to more creative interpretation. In a 2013 case in which a child was left in a running car that was then stolen, Columbus, Georgia, Police Sgt. Art Sheldon of the Patrol Service Division explained that technically, it is up to the judge to determine if the law was broken by leaving the child in the running car before it was stolen. "At the convenience store, you are not supposed to leave your car running to begin with," Sheldon told the Ledger-Enquirer at the time. "You are not supposed to leave a child in the car. There was two violations. Basically you are putting that child in danger. It's up to the judge to make the decision. Sometimes parents just don't know any better."
There is also the case of determining exactly what kind of child cruelty occurred. In Georgia, there are two kinds of child cruelty: first or second degree, determined by the difference between malicious intent and negligence. Because of the life insurance policy and a search history showing research into hot car deaths, prosecutors believe intent can be established. This will affect how the case is presented, and how the jury will handle the charges if Harris is found guilty.
Because of the human element involved in weighing intent, circumstance and relative relations into hot car deaths — and the nature of Georgia's less specific laws — each case is handled and charged quite different. This is why Henderson and Harris faced harsh charges and sentences, whereas others responsible for similar deaths faced nothing at all. Because Henderson received only 10 years in prison, it is possible Harris' legal team will push for something similar on the counts of cruelty. However, due to the higher number of counts and wider range of charges, he may find himself in prison for much longer or perhaps even on death row. Malice murder alone carries a 20-year charge, and combined with felony murder makes Harris eligible for the death penalty. The prosecution has stated they will seek the death penalty in this case.