Georgia High Court Overturns Murder Conviction of Justin Ross Harris in Hot-car Death of Toddler Son
Justin Ross Harris during the 2016 trial.
The Supreme Court of Georgia has thrown out the 2016 murder conviction of an Alabama man Justin Ross Harris, whose toddler son died after being left in a hot car in Georgia.
Justin Ross Harris, now 41, was convicted in the June 2014 death of his 22-month-old son, Cooper. Harris moved from Tuscaloosa to the Atlanta, GA area for work in 2012.
Cooper Harris, 22-month-old. TWLN
Prosecutors argued throughout the trial that Harris was unhappily married and intentionally killed his son because he wanted an escape from family life. Defense attorneys maintained that Harris was a loving father and that while he was responsible for the boy’s death, it was a tragic accident.
A 6-3 ruling was announced in a 155-page decision released Wednesday by Chief Justice David E. Nahmias, saying Harris is entitled to a new trial on the murder charge. The court upheld convictions against Harris for sexual exploitation of a child for asking a teenager to send him lewd photos and for explicit messages and photos he sent to the girl.
“We were not at the trial and based only on the cold record before us, we cannot say for sure what was going through (Harris’s) mind when he shut the Tuscon’s door on the morning of June 18, 2014, and sealed Cooper’s fate,’’ Nahmias wrote. “We do not know whether (Harris) planned and executed the horrific murder of his 22-month-old son by leaving him to suffer and slowly die in a hot vehicle or rather if (Harris) made a tragic, fatal mistake by forgetting the child whom by almost all accounts he loved and cherished was in the back seat.”
“(Harris’s) intent had to be determined by the jurors who saw and hear all the evidence with any reasonable doubt resolved in his favor,’’ Nahmias wrote. “Based only on the evidence that was properly admitted regarding the alleged crimes against Cooper, it would be a difficult and close decision.”
But, Nahmias wrote, the jury also heard and saw an extensive amount of improperly admitted evidence.
“The jury heard several days’ worth of testimony from a dozen witnesses about (Harris’s) extramarital (and sometimes illegal) sexual activities, saw hundreds of lewd (and sometimes illegal) sexual messages that (Harris) exchanged beginning in 2013 with numerous young women and girls, were given nine full-page color photographs of (Harris’s) erect penis that ensured that the jurors did not miss the point that he was a repulsive person,’’ Nahmias wrote.
The chief justice wrote that much of that evidence was at best marginally probative as to the alleged crimes involving Cooper, and he said much of it was “extremely and unfairly prejudicial.”
“We cannot say that it is highly probable that the improperly admitted evidence did not affect the guilty verdicts that the jury returned on the counts involving Cooper,’’ Nahmias wrote. “If (Harris) is to be found guilty of those crimes, it will need to be by a jury not tainted by that sort of evidence.”
“For these reasons, we reverse (Harris’s) convictions for the counts related to Cooper,’’ Nahmias wrote.
On June 18, 2014, police were called at 4:24 p.m. to 2955 Akers Mill Rd, Atlanta GA regarding a person down call. When the officers arrived on the scene, they found Cooper dead. A homicide investigation was launched, according to the warrants.
Cobb County police investigate an SUV where a toddler died Wednesday, June 18, 2014, near Marietta, Ga., when the father forgot to drop his child off at daycare and went to work. Justin Ross Harris, 33, was being held without bond on a felony murder charge Thursday, police in suburban Atlanta said. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ben Gray) GWINNETT OUT MARIETTA OUT LOCAL TELEVISION OUT (WXIA, WGCL, FOX 5) TWLN
Harris was serving a life sentence and will now be entitled to a new trial on the murder charges.
Check back for more updates on this case as it becomes available.