Director Susan Morgan Cooper’s reaction when she first heard about Justin Ross Harris and the death of Harris’ 22-month-old son Cooper in the back seat of his SUV was one of shock.
“I thought he was a monster,” she recalls, a sentiment many others shared. Yet after reading an article in The Washington Post about similar situations that have happened with other parents over the years — and deciding to make a movie about Harris in 2018 — she has come to a different conclusion. She now believes what happened was an accident.
Her documentary Fatal Distraction, also the name of Gene Weingarten’s 2009 Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post article, begins streaming on Tuesday. It examines the case of Harris, who, on the morning of June 18, 2014, after breakfast at a Chick-fil-A in Vinings, drove to his job as a Home Depot web developer and left his child in his car all afternoon in a rear-facing car seat.
The case brought forth a lot of emotions. Some saw it is an accident, expressing that Harris adored Cooper. Others, including the police, looked at it from a different lens. Law enforcement was able to obtain 28 search warrants to comb through the Harris home.
At a probable cause hearing, a detective raised doubt about whether Harris showed enough emotion at the scene and suggested that the suspect has been researching children dying in hot cars. It was also later revealed that Harris had been sexting a number of women the day of Cooper’s death, including a 15-year-old girl.
Harris was eventually found guilty of all eight counts against him, including malice murder and felony murder charges, in late 2016 and was sentenced to life in prison without parole, as well as 32 years.
Going back and reading Weingarten’s article, however, left the filmmaker with the strong feeling that justice was not served.
“I was incredibly moved not just at how these parents suffered the tragic loss of their child but then afterwards are vilified by the public, the press and prosecution,” she says. She reached out to the subject of the article, Miles Harrison, whose 21-month-old son Chase died of a heat stroke in Harrison’s car seat.
In doing so, she became familiar with the phrase fatal distraction, which refers to a condition affecting short-term memory capacity.
“We lead such multi-tasking lives and we are very consumed by a lot of things,” Cooper says. “Young parents are sleep deprived so they are tired.”
Incidents like leaving a baby in a car can also occur when there is a change of routine, she says, such as Harris going for breakfast the morning of the death before he dropped his son off at daycare instead of after.
The director uses a lot of footage from the day of the event, the probable cause hearing and the trial itself. She also interviews Harris’ parents and lawyer, a behavioral neuroscientist, a legal analyst and other parents who have been in situations where they have left their child in a car. The most extensive interview, though, is with Harris’ wife Leanna Taylor, who some thought had conspired with her husband to kill Cooper.
Leanna details that experience in the film: “The conversation on social media went from ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe they put him in jail’ to ‘Burn him at the stake immediately – and throw the wife in too because she’s as guilty as him.’”
Taylor was eventually fired from her job and moved out of state. She also filed for divorce.
Doing the interview with Taylor inspired the director to dig deeper. “She is an extremely intelligent person, but you would not have gotten that impression through the press reports. She was riveting. (She had this) total resolve even after everything that had happened and was absolute in her conviction that Ross was an excellent father, that he loved that child absolutely.”
One of “the big lies of the case,” Cooper asserts, was that both Harrises researched children dying on hot cars. “Nothing could be further than the truth and it was proven in court that that did not happen. What happened was that the governor of Georgia at the time (Nathan Deal) put up a PSA saying, ‘Please be careful and look before you lock.’ It was a pop up on his computer, (as) for every other resident in the state.”
On the stand during the hearing, Detective Phil Stoddard testified that Harris had watched that video twice, but in the trial said hewas not sure of that fact.
Cooper feels that in contemporary society, the public seems to enjoy witch hunts. Her view is that society thrives on negativity and denigrating people — and the anti-Harris press took its toll.
“I think with social media and the press, it was impossible for Harris to get a fair trial. Lies get distorted so fast. He couldn’t get an impartial trial in Cobb so it was moved to Brunswick, which is more conservative.” Harris is serving his sentence at Macon State Prison. The filmmaker and Harris have communicated but she says it’s impossible to meet with him at this point.
Born in Wales, Cooper now lives in the Los Angeles area. She has directed and produced several other documentaries, including To the Moon and Back, dealing with the Russian adoption ban.
The advent of Covid caused a delay in getting the film out into the world. After one online film festival, Cooper decided to wait it out for a physical festival. She chose Atlanta Docufest last December, and the film won the Audience Award. She has lined up her fifth festival screening, at the Bahamas International Film Festival, for early next year.
Her goal in making Fatal Distraction was to overturn Harris’ sentence and to help get the Hot Cars Act passed. It would require all new passenger motor vehicles to be equipped with a child safety alert system. Some form of the bill has been around for a while, but the latest version was introduced by U.S. Representatives Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) this past spring. It has been referred to the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce.
Meanwhile, nearly 1,000 children have died in hot cars since 1990, according to Pete Daniels of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Cooper hopes that the film’s release will broaden the public’s understanding of the case and all that happened.
“Over 300 children have died since Justin Ross Harris was sentenced, so punishing these parents will not prevent these tragedies,” the filmmaker said. “Technology will.”
Earlier this year, the trial judge denied an appeal for a new trial, so Harris’ lawyer’s next plan is an appeal to the Supreme Court of Georgia.
Jim Farmer covers theater and film for ArtsATL. A graduate of the University of Georgia, he has written about the arts for 30-plus years. Jim is the festival director of Out on Film, Atlanta’s LGBTQ film festival. He lives in Avondale Estates with his husband, Craig, and dog Douglas.