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Originally published July 4, 2014 at 10:12 PM | Page modified July 4, 2014 at 11:09 PM

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Focus shifts to toddler’s mother after spouse is charged in death

Whatever Leanna Harris’ role winds up being in the case — witness, defendant or supportive wife — prosecutors and the public are taking note of her public actions.


The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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ATLANTA — Leanna Harris’ husband, prosecutors alleged this week, had two sides: Churchgoing family man and another, darker persona, one that compelled Justin Ross Harris to knowingly leave their 22-month-old son to die, locked inside a sweltering SUV.

Based on her own, sometimes confounding words, along with evidence disclosed at her spouse’s probable-cause hearing Thursday, many are wondering whether there’s another side to Leanna Harris.

The 30-year-old dietitian, who two years ago moved to Cobb County from Tuscaloosa, Ala., has not been charged with any crimes. But police have disclosed that, like her husband, she had researched children dying in hot vehicles before her son Cooper’s death, telling officers it was her “worst fear.” On average, 38 children die each year after being trapped inside automobiles, according to KidsAndCars.org.

Investigators described her behavior the day of her son’s June 18 death as odd, if not suspicious.

When informed by workers at her son’s day-care facility that Cooper had never been dropped off, she calmly responded: “Ross must have left him in the car. There’s no other explanation,” according to Cobb County Police Detective Phil Stoddard’s testimony Thursday.

Then, when reunited with her husband at Cobb police headquarters after he had been charged with murder, Leanna Harris asked him: “Did you say too much?” according to Stoddard.

“There isn’t enough to make her a co-conspirator ... yet,” said criminal-defense lawyer Esther Panitch.

Whatever Leanna Harris’ role winds up being in this case — witness, defendant or supportive wife — prosecutors and the public are taking note of her public actions.

She has expressed little emotion throughout. At Thursday’s hearing, she started blankly ahead, chewing gum, as prosecutors delivered one bombshell after another.

When she called home June 18 with the grim news of Cooper’s death, her mother could be overheard on the phone: “Why aren’t you crying? Why aren’t you reacting?”

Her response, according to Stoddard: “I must be in shock.”

Then there was her eulogy at Cooper’s funeral last Saturday in Tuscaloosa. To those who don’t know her, Leanna Harris’ comment that she wouldn’t bring her son back, even if she could, seemed suspicious.

“He’s in the most peaceful, wonderful place there is,” Leanna Harris said.

But the 250 or so mourners who gathered at University Church of Christ gave her two rounds of applause, and Harris’ statement is not unusual among the deeply religious who believe the afterlife is God’s greatest gift.

Still, it’s clear, according to veteran legal observers, that police are looking at Leanna Harris. On Thursday, Cobb District Attorney Vic Reynolds said the investigation continues and “much work remains,” though he offered no details on where the probe may be headed.

“Knowledge of a crime isn’t prosecutable. A cover-up is,” said Panitch, the lawyer.

But if, as many increasingly believe, her husband ends up facing more significant murder charges, prosecutors may seek to use Leanna Harris as a witness. In Georgia, the spousal privilege shielding a wife from testifying against her husband, and vice versa, doesn’t apply in cases of domestic violence or death of a child.

“She needs to make a deal before the state finds more evidence against her,” Panitch said.

So far, Leanna Harris has remained loyal to her husband of seven years. At Cooper’s funeral, she said she holds no anger toward him.

“Ross is and was a wonderful father,” she said. As Harris, 33, listened from jail on speaker phone, his wife told him: “I love you and I’m doing this for you.”

It’s unclear whether Leanna Harris knew then of her spouse’s “sexting” habits, first disclosed publicly during Thursday’s hearing. Friends and family shielded her from reporters as she left the courtroom and insist she’s a woman of strong faith who treasured her role as wife and mother. Her husband’s half-brother, Randy Michael Baygents, a police officer for nearly two decades, said Thursday that had he been released on bond, he would have returned home.

“What you saw here is what is truly in her,” the Harris family’s pastor, David Eldridge, said at Cooper’s funeral. “There is an example here for all of us on how to deal with things.”



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