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Dead Toddler’s Mom Speaks Out for First Time Since Ex-Husband Was Convicted in Hot Car Murder

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The mother of a 22-month-old boy who died in a hot car in 2014 is speaking out about his death and — for the first time on TV — her ex-husband’s subsequent murder conviction.

In an exclusive clip from ABC’s upcoming 20/20 special, airing Friday night, Leanna Taylor reveals the reason behind her seemingly emotionless reaction after her toddler son, Cooper, was found dead in his father’s car in June 2014.

“There’s no way for someone to know how they would react … My explanation of how I would have reacted and the reality of how I actually reacted would have been completely opposite,” Taylor tells ABC’s Amy Robach in the clip.

“Nothing about it felt real, nothing about it felt like it was happening,” she says. “It just felt like a bad dream.”

Cooper died on June 18, 2014, after spending seven hours trapped in a hot car in Marietta, Georgia. Taylor’s then-husband, Justin Ross Harris, was arrested almost immediately after his son was found, and prosecutors argued he intentionally left Cooper to die.

Harris was found guilty of eight felony counts — including malice murder, cruelty to children and criminal attempt to commit a felony — and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He is appealing that conviction.

Taylor, however, has long maintained that she believes her son’s death was an accident. (She divorced Harris following his arrest and the revelation of his marital infidelities.)

“There was no evidence in our relationship that suggested that he would harm anyone, much less his own son,” Taylor tells Robach, in a 20/20 clip that aired on Good Morning America Friday. “It never crossed my mind that Ross had done it on purpose. Never. It was an accident.”

(Taylor also gave local interviews, to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta’s WSB, which were both published Friday.)

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Justin Ross Harris
Cobb County Sheriff's Depart/AP

RELATED VIDEO: Justin Ross Harris Convicted in Toddler’s Hot Car Death

Like Harris, Taylor has faced scrutiny as a result of her behavior. Authorities said she did not ask to see her son’s body on the night of his death — which they called “strange” — and she was heard asking Harris, “Did you say too much?”

She explained the latter incident in her ABC News interview, telling Robach in the GMA clip that she asked that question because she knew Harris tended to ramble.

“I knew my husband. I knew his personality … he doesn’t shut up,” Taylor said. “The only thing I could think of logically is, ‘What did you say to make them think you had done this on purpose?’ ”

Taylor also revealed she has faced backlash of a more personal nature: Someone even left a note on her son’s grave.

“It basically said, ‘I’m sorry that you weren’t loved in this life, Cooper. If you had been my son, I would have loved you,’ ” Taylor says in the exclusive clip. “It’s hard enough to lose your child, but then to have people think that you didn’t love him and that you didn’t want him, that’s something that should never be added to the equation of having to bury your baby.”

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Cooper Harris (left) with his dad, Justin Ross Harris.

During his trial, investigators alleged Harris had exchanged sexual text messages with several women on the day his son died and had visited prostitutes while married, one of whom testified against him.

Taylor told Robach on GMA that Harris has since apologized to her “for not protecting our son that day. For not being faithful to me. For taking his family for granted.”

She adds, “I accept it, [but] it’s not going to change anything.”

Interviewer: ‘I Saw a Grieving Mother’

Robach tells PEOPLE that when she sat down with Taylor for the 20/20 interview, she “was extremely open and honest, answering all of the tough and delicate questions about the most devastating day of her life.”

“She told me she has felt nearly every emotion you can imagine about her ex husband,” Robach says of their discussion.

“I saw a grieving mother, a woman with a hole in her heart that will never heal,” she says.

Leanna Taylor while testifying at Justin Ross Harris’ murder trial in 2016.
John Bazemore/AP

Of Taylor’s repeated statements that Harris is not a murderer — including testifying on his behalf at his trial — Robach says Taylor wanted only “to tell the truth,” not defend her ex.

“Leanna believes the evidence of Ross being a horrible husband does not have anything to do with what type of father he was,” Robach says, adding, “She says the truth is that he was an incredibly loving father who would never harm his son.”

Robach continues, “She’s also concerned that making [Harris] out to be a monster actually puts other children at risk, because it makes people believe that only a bad person could leave a child behind.”

Taylor “wants the world to know that Cooper was loved by both of his parents,” Robach says. “She doesn’t want his legacy to be the boy who’s father killed him deliberately.”

According to the AJC, Taylor now lives in Alabama and has a boyfriend. But her life is still difficult in the wake of her son’s death, nearly three years later. Robach says, “She told me that people say time heals all wounds, but that is not the case for her. She said every single day is hard, but especially the summertime.”

“Every time she has to open her car door in the Alabama heat, and feels the inside of her vehicle, it’s a constant reminder of her son. ”

Taylor’s 20/20 interview airs Friday (10 p.m. ET) on ABC.

• With ADAM CARLSON