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MARIETTA, Ga. — A Georgia IT worker facing murder charges after leaving his 22-month-old son in a hot SUV all day went back to his vehicle during his lunch break, then returned to his office for the rest of the day with the child still inside, according to an arrest warrant released Wednesday.

Autopsy results showed the boy, Cooper Harris, died of hyperthermia, and that the investigation "suggests the manner of death is homicide," the Cobb County Police Department announced later in the day.

The toddler's father, 33-year-old Justin Harris, was charged with felony murder and child cruelty a week ago, hours after he discovered his son's lifeless body still strapped in his car seat in the back of the Hyundai Tucson. Harris told police he had forgotten to drop Cooper off at day care that morning, leaving the boy in the SUV for more than seven hours as outside temperatures climbed to about 88 degrees.

Critics of the department's handling of the case say police were too quick to charge Harris with murder and too slow to explain the evidence they have against the Web developer, WXIA-TV reports.

The new arrest warrant drops the child cruelty charge from first degree to second degree — which could mean no criminal intent was found. The warrant says that Harris, a native of Tuscaloosa, Ala., placed the child in the back seat the morning of June 18 and that they stopped for breakfast before Harris went to his job at Home Depot. He parked at his office and left the car with the child still secured in his rear-facing car seat. Harris returned to his car around lunch time, reaching in through the driver's side door and placing something inside.

He told police that while driving away from his office just after 4 p.m. he found his son in medical distress. He pulled over and screamed for help, witnesses said.

Supporters of Harris have posted an online video accusing police and prosecutors of rushing to judgment. More than 11,000 people have signed an online petition urging District Attorney Vic Reynolds to drop the charges. Supporters have donated more than $21,000 for burial expenses and legal bills.

VIDEO: Dad charged in son's hot car death gets support

FRIDAY: Ga. dad charged in son's hot car death pleads not guilty
FRIDAY: Fla. father arrested after daughter dies in hot car

Cobb County Police say they're confident in the evidence and case they're building but refuse to debate it in the court of public opinion.

Authorities have not released the official cause of death or the autopsy results. Harris remains jailed without bond pending a hearing July 3.

WEDNESDAY: Dad charged with murder after son dies in hot car
JUNE 16: 9-month-old dies in hot car after dad goes to work

Harris graduated from the University of Alabama in 2012. He worked in the IT department of Home Depot for the past two years. Cooper was his only son, and the Division of Family and Children Services said the agency had no reports of abuse with the child or the family.

According to Legacy.com, the funeral for Cooper Harris will be Saturday in Alabama.

Cooper's hot-car death was the 13th this year. In 2013, 44 children across the USA died as a result of vehicle-related heat deaths, according to KidsandCars.org, a nonprofit child safety organization that monitors news sites and police reports involving children and vehicle accidents.

In Rockledge, Fla., Steven Darnell Lillie, 31, of Cocoa, Fla., was arrested Friday on charges of aggravated manslaughter of a child after he left his 9-month-old daughter, Anna Marie Lillie, in his pickup truck for more than four hours after going to work June 16.

On Saturday, Lillie was released on $15,000 bond. He was directed not to be alone with children younger than 12 and will make his next court appearance July 29.

The number of deaths from children being left in cars began to climb in the late 1990s when officials realized that front-seat airbags were killing kids in wrecks and a movement began to put kids in the back, said Amber Rollins, director and volunteer manager of KidsAndCars.org. The heatstroke deaths became an unintended consequence of that push.

The parents who leave their children in the back seat generally are the ones with baby gates and outlet covers in the house, she said. They're concerned about safety – and they are devastated.

"One of the challenges is getting parents to realize that it's not a neglect or bad parent issue," Rollins said.

The National Safety Council recommends that parents leave something in the back seat of their vehicle that they need for work or their errands, such as a briefcase, purse or cellphone, to serve as a reminder of a child in a car seat. KidsAndCars.org suggests keeping a stuffed animal in a child's car seat to put in the front passenger seat as a reminder when a parent is transporting the baby.

Devin Fehely also reports for WXIA-TV, Atlanta. Contributing: Linda Dono, USA TODAY; Scott Gunnerson, Florida Today


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