ATLANTA — When they got the news that would change their lives forever, Evelyn Harris didn’t say a word. Her husband, Reggie, wailed in agony. She stayed quiet.
“My husband fell to his knees and I was catatonic,” said Evelyn Harris, recalling the summer afternoon six years ago when she found out her grandson, Cooper, was dead and her son, Justin Ross Harris, was suspected of his murder. “I kept saying, ‘it’s not real. It’s not real.’ I didn’t even absorb it. It took awhile for me to come with grips that it was a reality.”
In December 2016, Justin Ross Harris was sentenced to life in prison plus 32 years after a jury found him guilty of intentionally leaving his 22-month-old son inside his SUV, strapped in a rear-facing car seat. Harris is now serving his time in Macon State Prison in south-central Georgia.
Prosecutors seized upon Ross Harris’ reaction to Cooper’s death as proof it was an intentional act. They showed videos in which Harris’ conduct veered from seemingly calm and collected to frantic and emotional.
“Ross is like me,” Evelyn Harris, 68, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And because he didn’t act the ‘right’ way they send him to prison for the rest of his life.”
Until now, Evelyn and Reggie Harris, of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, have remained quiet about the case, which will return to the spotlight Dec. 14. Superior Court Judge Mary Staley Clark has scheduled a three-day hearing on a motion for a new trial.
The Harrises are featured prominently in “Fatal Distraction,” a newly released documentary about the case. It was written and directed by Susan Cooper Morgan, who is convinced Ross Harris is innocent.
“Ross is a victim of character assassination,” said Morgan, who has dedicated the film to overturning his sentence and securing passage of the Hot Cars Act requiring automakers to install technology that detects the presence of a child. “The public, the prosecutors and the press created a monster.”
The documentary was screened recently at the Synchronicity Theater in Atlanta, part of the Atlanta Documentary Festival. Attendance was limited due to coronavirus.
Morgan focuses the documentary on the relationship between Ross and his former wife, Leanna Taylor.
“She’s so compelling her belief in Ross’ innocence,” Morgan said. “The things she was put through are just inconceivable.”
Taylor recalls her two days testifying in her ex-husband’s defense, as “the second and third worst days of my life.”
Much of the questioning revolved around her husband’s infidelities, evidence the film argues should never have been admissible.
“He was found guilty because he cheated on his wife, not because he killed his son,” Evelyn Harris said. “They never had any evidence that he murdered Cooper.”
Lead prosecutor Chuck Boring argued that there were two times Harris must have noticed that Cooper was still inside his Hyundai Tucson after their breakfast at a Chick-fil-A. The first time, after Harris returned to the car at lunchtime with some light bulbs he had just purchased and the second, after he ducked out of work early to see a movie.
The film raises another point: Why would Harris, an IT specialist with Home Depot, leave so much seemingly incriminating evidence on his personal computer?
“If he had killed his son, no one in the world would’ve ever found a clue. Nothing,” Evelyn Harris said.
Boring, in an interview with the AJC after the trial, said Harris didn’t bother to cover his tracks because “he in no way believed anyone would call B.S. on him.”
“I really think from the get-go he didn’t think anyone was going to question him,” Boring said.
Evelyn Harris said she has barely discussed the case with her son, worried those listening on the other end might turn around their conversation “to say whatever they want to.”
Ross did tell her “there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about Cooper,” his mother said. “If I had just looked back there to see. But I didn’t think about it.”
No longer in solitary confinement, Ross is spending his time behind bars helping other inmates get their GEDs. Reggie Harris, 73, said they recently heard from one of his students, who told them their son wouldn’t let him give up until he received his diploma.
“That’s who Ross is,” his father said.
His faith in God has sustained him, said Evelyn Harris. She also credits her faith, though her son’s ordeal raised serious questions.
“Why is my grandson taken away? Why is my son taken away?” Evelyn Harris said. “I lost my daughter-in-law. I lost everything. Why did God let that happen?”
She said she won’t be satisfied until her son, who turns 40 on Friday, walks through the door of their Alabama home.
“I want Ross to have a fair shake, because he didn’t get a fair shake,” she said. “I’m not going to stop until he does. I don’t care how long it takes.”
©2020 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)