Prosecutor won't seek death penalty for father of toddler who died after being left in hot car

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ATLANTA — A Georgia man accused of leaving his toddler son to die inside a hot car will not face the death penalty, a prosecutor said Wednesday.

Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds said in an emailed statement that he won't seek the death penalty against Justin Ross Harris after reviewing the state's death penalty statute and other factors. He declined to elaborate.

Police have said the toddler was left in the vehicle for about seven hours on a day when temperatures in the Atlanta area reached at least into the high 80s. The medical examiner's office has said the boy died of hyperthermia — essentially overheating — and called his death a homicide.

Harris' attorney, Maddox Kilgore, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

A lawyer for Harris' wife, Leanna Harris, said his client has been convinced of her husband's innocence from the beginning.

"She's thrilled with the district attorney's decision not to seek the death penalty because this affirms what we've been saying all along: This was just a tragic accident," Lawrence Zimmerman told reporters. "When the truth comes out, justice will prevail for Ross."

Leanna Harris has not been charged in the case.

Harris faces multiple charges, including malice murder, felony murder and cruelty to children. The malice murder charge indicates prosecutors intend to prove Harris intentionally left his 22-month-old son Cooper to die in the hot car.

The eight-count indictment also includes charges related to sexually explicit exchanges prosecutors say Harris had with an underage girl.

During a three-hour bond and probable cause hearing in July, Cobb County Assistant District Attorney Chuck Boring questioned a police detective at length, outlining evidence he said proved that Harris intentionally left his young boy in the hot SUV. Harris was sitting in his office exchanging nude photos with several women, including a teenager, the day his son died, Cobb County Police Detective Phil Stoddard testified at the hearing.

The indictment also accuses Harris of asking a girl under the age of 18 to send him a nude photo and of sending nude photos of himself and sexually explicit messages to her. It charges him with attempting to sexually exploit a child and with disseminating harmful material to a minor.

Harris' attorney has said the state has introduced several inconsistent theories about a potential motive in the boy's death, which he has said was a terrible accident.

Page Pate, an Atlanta criminal defense attorney who's not involved in the Harris case, said it's somewhat surprising that Reynolds decided not to seek the death penalty.

"If this is truly a malice murder case and they have sufficient evidence to show that he intended to kill his son, then this is the kind of case that would normally call for the death penalty," Pate said.

But he said that while the case meets the legal requirements to qualify as a capital case, the district attorney also has to weigh the strength of his evidence.

"Sometimes even if a jury finds sufficient evidence to convict a person, they may waiver on the death penalty if they think the evidence isn't 100 percent solid," Pate said.

Harris is a native of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and moved to Georgia in 2012 to work for Home Depot.

Harris had been due to appear Thursday before Cobb Superior Court Judge Mary E. Staley for an arraignment. Because of a scheduling conflict for his defense attorney, that has been postponed until Oct. 17, Reynolds said.

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