Minute by minute in the Justin Ross Harris trial

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Minute by minute in the Justin Ross Harris trial

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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
A downcast Justin Ross Harris listens to Cobb County Senior Assistant District Attorney Chuck Boring’s opening statement on Monday. (Stephen B. Morton / The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

 

This is a running account of the first day of the murder trial of Justin Ross Harris, who is accused of murder in the hot-car death of his son, Cooper. For a linear chronology, start reading from the 9:10 a.m. mark and work your way upward. 

5:15 p.m.

Judge Staley Clark returns to court at a little after 5 and asks that the jury be brought in. 

The judge says the trial will resume tomorrow at 9 a.m. and schedules the defense's opening statement then. She admonishes the jury to get there by 9.

"I'm going to excuse you all until 10 till 9 in your jury room. ... Punctuality is very important. Now let's talk about conduct requirements. No. 1, keep an open mind. It's critical to the fairness and integrity of this case. ... Do no talk with anyone about the case, do not let anyone talk to you about the case. Don't talk to each other about the case."  

She dismisses the jury at 5:15 p.m., and Day 1 is done.

4:55 p.m.

The recess has now dragged on for nearly 90 minutes. The lead defense attorney, Maddox Kilgore, had been expected to launch into his opening statement after the two-hour presentation by prosecutor Chuck Boring. But it has gotten so late in the day, the judge may delay Kilgore's statement until tomorrow. 

3:30 p.m. 

Prosecutor Chuck Boring concludes his opening statement after nearly two hours. Some final excerpts: 

You’re going to hear that the defendant led a double life that was spiraling out of control. 

 

... Ladies and gentlemen, remain focused on what’s important. Focus  on the defendant and what he did. This case is about Cooper. This case is about what was done to him. And this case is about who was guilty of doing it. And the evidence in this case will be clear about all three things. The defendant’s own words showed he was guilty.  


... Any reasonable review of the facts is going to show the defendant intentionally murdered his child. Because he locked his child in the car, Cooper is dead. … (He quotes from a message sent by Harris:) I love my son and all, but we both need escapes. I love my son and all, but we both need escapes. 

... At the end of this case, ladies and gentlemen, I’m going to ask you to do a couple of simple things. Use your good common sense, with all the evidence in this case, and hold this defendant responsible for trying to escape one life and enter another, for killing a child in one of the most unimaginable and horrible ways.

The judge declares a brief recess.

3:20 p.m.

Prosecutor Chuck Boring's opening statement continues. More  excerpts:

… When he pulls in to that parking space you’re going to see there, he pulls around and he stops. His car does not have a backup camera. What does he do? He sees a spot where there’s an island and nobody else can park there. He backs up and around in between two vehicles, with no backup camera, and pulls into that spot. 

You’re going to see Chick-fil-A video, showing the times he was there and when he left. … They have video of him walking out of the Chick-fil-A. You’ll see records from the daycare. … over the last 25 days that Cooper had gone to daycare, the defendant had taken him 19 times. … 

You’re going to see different types of business records from different messaging services. … You’re going to hear testimony about computers that were seized and then also phones that were seized. 

Now the investigation, when it turned to the videos, they also went to examine forensic evidence from telephones… to see what he was doing that day. What you’re going to see is, not only that day was he messaging women constantly, that he was leading a double life. … This being his obsession, taking risk after risk after risk, meeting up with prostitutes, while his wife is texting him. You’re going to see this double life you get from the phone and the computers.

... You're going to hear from the medical examiner about the damage that was done to this child. There's no doubt that this child suffered horrible physical pain. Cruel and excessive physical pain. There can be no more cruel and excessive physical pain than what happened to this child. ... It got up to 92 degrees. Just -- a coincidence? -- it happened to be the hottest day of the year that he left his son in the car.

 ... The judge is going to tell you that motive is not an element in a homicide case. Atrocities are committed all across this globe. And some of the people who commit them go to their graves with the motive buried deep inside them. In this case, ladies and gentlemen, we have a motive. The defendant told us his motive 10 minutes before he followed through with it. 

... In the months leading up to this, you're going to hear that the defendant had been taking a picture of his son every day and sending it to his wife.... In the days leading up to the murder, he stopped doing that. He told the daycare workers, "He's just getting too big for that."

... He admitted he had a double life. All this evidence will be prove guilt in this case. This is a case of contrasts. An innocent child, versus a father who abandoned his responsibilities. This case is about a defendant who was very worried about perceptions, how people were going to see him, versus the real Ross Harris. ... The only issue in this case, is there malice? After you hear the evidence in this case, there'll be no question he is guilty of everything he is charged with. 

... The evidence will show this was intentional. He got an email from Little Apron Academy that day. And his text to Leanna at 3:16, "When are you gonna get my buddy?" Trying to figure out what time she was going to leave. ... She worked about 50 minutes away. He knew he had lag time. 

2:50 p.m.

Prosecutor Chuck Boring's opening statement continues. These are excerpts: 

When he's in the back of that police car, what does he complain about? Is he screaming, "Can I see my son? What’s going on?" No. He complains that it’s hot in the back of the car. Complains that it’s hot in the back of the car.  . . . Then you’re going to see this patrol car video, where he’s back there for minutes, just hanging out, he keeps looking back, looking around to see what’s going on. Every once in a while he yells out, buries his face in the cushion. But pay attention when you see this video. When he turns around, and is not making eye contact with witnesses, you see manipulation in his behavior, in his demeanor. 

[Boring promises many new details about the morning Harris left Cooper in the car.]

In a conversation he had with his wife, he said that Cooper actually said "school" to him. He knew they were going to daycare. 

(After Harris left work that afternoon to go to the movies with friends,) ... At some point several minutes down the road, by the Akers Mill shopping center, he said he tried to change lanes and turn around and got a glimpse of Cooper. No mention about any stench or smell or anything like that. Ladies and gentlemen, you're going to hear from numerous law enforcement officers, someone from the medical examiners office, they're going to tell you that even hours after the body was taken away, they could smell it. Even with the door of the car left open, they could still smell it. There was no doubt there was a stench coming from that car. And no doubt that a child sitting in that car baking in the hot Georgia sun for seven hours, with urine in his diaper, with sweat matting his hair and soaking his shirt (there was a noticeable smell). And he jumps in the car and doesn't smell anything.

[Our for lunch, he stopped at a Home Depot store and bought light bulbs and then returns to the parking lot at his office.]  He goes back to the car, opens the door, leans forward and throws the light bulbs in. Opens the driver's side door ... he can see clearly into that car, and he throws light bulbs. There was only one reason he would have thrown light bulbs. He knew what he was going to see, and he didn't want to see it. 

... When police asked for the pass code for his phone, he tarted to give it, and then he stopped and said, Oh, it's biometric. That was not true. He thought he was going to outsmart everyone. ... He argues the charges, saying it was not intentional.  ... When he realizes the police are accusing him of something, he says, well, on TV, I've seen the dangers, I know the dangers. There's a man just like me who is now an advocate. I want to be an advocate. 

... Now after the defendant was interviewed by the police, you're going to hear that they went further, and they pulled video of the  defendant talking to his wife. The defendant had been begging to talk to this wife. And when you see the video, you're going to know why he wanted to talk to his wife. He wanted to make sure they had their stories straight. ... He also said, "Why did this happen to me? My whole life is over." He actually complains about the jail cell having an uncomfortable cot. 

... And he says to her, "Even if I could bring him back, I wouldn't. He looked really peaceful." You're going to see photographs, unfortunately, you're going to see photographs, of Cooper lying on that pavement.

When he gets booked into the Cobb County Jail, he comes upon a person who was a student at Georgia Southern. This person had gotten a DUI at sometime over the past year, and since it was the summer, he was at the jail to turn himself in . . . As they're sitting there, this defendant doesn't go sit in the corner, doesn't grieve, doesn't keep himself. He's not sitting their just despondent that he just killed his son. ... He said, "Hey, what are y'all in for?" 


2:15 p.m.

Excerpts of the opening argument by prosecutor Chuck Boring: 

Evidence will show this was the worst imaginable death for a child. Words that he used were he closed the door on his 22-month-old son's life and (sought) another life. Minutes before he closed the door on that child, while that child sat in the car, evidence will show that this defendant , that he'd been online and exchanged comments that he'd been unhappy in his marriage. On that day, when his son was cooking to death, he was texting with a 16-year-old girl, trying to get photos of her vaginal area. 

While he was doing that all day, his son was out in the car, dying,  slowly, painfully . . . When he was point-six of a mile from the Chick-fil-A where he had breakfast with his son, he was texting a ... woman. [Boring quotes a text from the woman:]

"I hate being married with kids. The novelty has worn off and I have nothing to show for it."

. . . It's about deception, of family and friends, deception with law enforcement, deception in every part of this case. A double life. . . . Luckily, in jury selection you were asked several questions about perspectives. When you hear something, do you take it at face value, or do you consider other perspectives. Thank goodness the Cobb County Police Department decided not just to take the defendant's version of the story. 

The evidence is going to show, when you go back into that jury room, if you just take the defendant's words, he will be guilty of negligent homicide. But rather than take his word, they took additional steps and learned the unimaginable. 

He pulls into the Akers Mill shopping center and starts shouting, "What have I done? What have I done?" His behavior was not consistent with somebody who had just discovered his child in the back seat after forgetting him. Did he cry, "Somebody call 911, somebody come help my child." No. What have I done? While other people were trying to help his son, he was walking around. 

...He starts trying to call his wife, and trying to call the daycare. He doesn't call 911 and separates himself from his child. No tears. Kind of like Will Ferrell screaming, Oh, gosh, what have I done, what have I done. And shedding no tears. 

You're going to hear that Detective Piper came up and asked him, she saw him pacing back and forth away from this child, he held up his finger to her, on the phone, refused to get off the phone. Told Officer Foley to shut the (expletive) up, my son just died.

. . . At the end of this trial, the defendant's going to be guilty of all counts. Counts six, seven and eight all involve acts against a minor that up to and on the day Cooper died, he was still messaging the minor. ... The single question in this case, Did the defendant intend to kill Cooper Harris? Did he intend to? The evidence is going to show that he is undoubtedly guilty of all counts.

[Throughout, Harris's face is cast down in a deep scowl.]

1:50 p.m.

Judge Mary Staley Clark reads the eight counts in the indictment to the jury. Then she thanks the jury for its service and offers an overview of the trial, explaining how the rules of evidence work and that she is the "gatekeeper of the evidence." 

She reminds the jurors that she has supplied notebooks and pens to each of them and they are encouraged, but not required, to use them. 

Staley Clark says the trial will start, at least initially, at 9 each morning, take a comfort break at midmorning, recess around noon for an hour and 15 minutes for lunch. Then a midafternoon break, and then the court concludes the work day at about 5 p.m. 

"Keep an open mind," she said. "Fairness in this case requires that you keep and maintain and open mind during all of this case, so that as every piece of evidence comes to you, you can keep an open mind about it." 

She admonishes the jurors to speak of the case with no one, including one another (until she sends them away to deliberate) and to avoid reading news reports or viewing TV or Internet reports about the trial.  "What you know about this case must come to you through this courtroom, no place else." Then she suggests that jurors stay off of social media altogether. 

1:25 p.m.

The court has not yet reconvened. But the prosecutors are busily preparing for opening statements. They've put up a large screen in the courtroom facing the jury box and rearranged the lawyer's lectern so it, too, is facing the jury. 

Lead prosecutor Chuck Boring and second-chair Jesse Evans are seated at the prosecution table now. Lead defense attorney Maddox Kilgore just stopped by Boring's chair, leaned over and whispered something in his ear for a few seconds. 

Now Boring is fiddling with the flat screen. The judge returns and says, "Still preparing, Mr. Boring? I think I'm in a relatively patient mood."

Now Harris and defense attorney Carlos Rodriguez are having a whispered conversation, and Rodriguez pours Harris a cup of water. 

The judge says she will give the newly seated jury an opening charge, and opening statements should begin shortly immediately afterward.

12:30 p.m.

Judge Staley Clark denies the defense motion to exclude evidence from a prostitute.

"The state's first argument about a week and a half ago was that it wasn't a proper vehicle to bring this matter to the court's attention. I think there is some merit to that argument. I'm going to deny defendant's (motion). I find this a confirmation rather than an identification." 

She recessed the court at 12:14 p.m. and told the parties to be back for opening statements at 1:15. 


12:05 p.m.

The jury was ushered out right after it was chosen, and the court has been hearing a defense motion since that time. 

Prosecutor Jesse Evans asked the detective how many white customers the woman had entertained in May. 

"She said she only had one that month, and he was overweight, fat, dumpy," the detective said. 

Evans restated that as "heavyset white male."

Kilgore, the defense attorney, then elicited testimony from the detective that the woman did not positively identify Harris but simply said Harris looked like the man in the photo the officer was showing her. She didn't know the man's name, didn't recall his hair color, didn't recall a prominent mole on or near Harris's ear. 

By now, the relative crowd that had filled up the room earlier in the morning had largely dissipated. 

Kilgore told the judge that the prostitute did not positively identify Harris.  

Prosecutor Evans argued that the woman's comments on the photo were "confirmation" and not "identification" and cites case law to back that up. 

 

11:30 a.m.

Motion hearing on whether the court should exclude testimony by a woman identified as a prostitute. Prosecutor Jesse Evans questions a Cobb County police detective who investigated prostitution. He affirms that the phone number of an illegal escort service was found on Justin Ross Harris's phone and says Harris tried to call her in May 2014 -- a month before Cooper died.

The detective said he called the woman posing as a potential customer and she invited him to meet her at a hotel on Franklin Road in Marietta.

"There was never any intention to take her into custody, to arrest her. It was merely to . . . confirm that the defendant had indeed called her."

He arrived at the hotel, called the woman, and she told him to meet her in a certain room. He knocked on the door and the woman admitted him. He said he made small talk with the woman and then offered U.S. currency.

"With Ms. Doerr I made small-talk conversation, and I gave her ... U.S. currency, and at that time I identified myself as a Cobb officer."

He said she cooperated with detectives.

"After I identified myself as a police officer, she was taken aback, she was kind of startled. I told her to calm down."

She showed him records reflecting that Harris had called her three times.

The defense then takes the witness, but the defense questioning is largely inaudible since attorney Maddox Kilgore continually walks away from the microphone at counsel's podium while questioning the witness.

The detective testifies that, according to the prostitute, the man identified as Harris stood out to her because most of her customers were African-American men.

10:30 a.m.

Jury strikes -- each side has nine peremptory strikes, meaning they can excuse any juror for any reason other than race or gender -- continue in silence. 

At 10:25 a.m., the judge asks the attorneys to approach the bench and begins conferring with them, with the courtroom sound turned off. They are joined at the bench by the man in light-gray blazer who was passing the jury lists back and forth between prosecution and defense.

The relatively small courtroom, virtually empty at 9 a.m. save for the attorneys, the defendant and the judge, has begun to fill up with media and spectators. Cobb County's lead detective on the case, Phil Stoddard, is sitting three rows back from the defense.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have a jury," Judge Staley Clark declares after a short conversation at the bench. "I want to thank you all."

She begins calling out the jurors' numbers and initials. 

"You're in the jury," she says to each one. 

When she's finished calling the list, she asks the newly empaneled jury to follow the bailiff to the jury room.

She then thanks the roughly 30 prospective jurors who were not selected and tells them they are excused. One asks whether he can start reading the newspaper again. "Yes," Staley Clark said. "You're free as a bird."

The judge asks the attorneys for the record whether the jurors on the panel are the ones they selected. They say yes.

There will be a hearing shortly on a defense motion to exclude the testimony of a woman identified as a prostitute. 

Staley Clark recesses the court briefly.

10:15 a.m.

The silent process of striking jurors continues.

Lead prosecutor Chuck Boring is sitting on the left side of the prosecution table; Jesse Evans is next to him, Susan Treadaway is next to Evans. The attorneys have laptops open in front of them.

 

On the defense side, lead attorney Maddox Kilgore sits on the right end of the table (nearest the prosecution), with Carlos Rodriguez next to him, and Ross Harris next to Rodriguez.

Bryan Lumpkin sits at the end of the table, next to Harris.

Harris is sitting stock still at the defense table as the jury-striking process continues.

The judge said earlier that she expected jury selection to be complete by lunch, with opening statements beginning at 1 p.m.

9:45 a.m.

"Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. It’s good to see you again. I’m Mary Staley Clark, and you’ve been called as prospective jurors on this case. . . . Would the (attorneys) please introduce themselves?

Chuck Boring, Cobb County District Attorney’s office 


Jesse Evans, Cobb County District Attorney’s office 

Susan Treadaway, Cobb County District Attorney’s office 

Maddux Kilgore, for Mr. Harris

Carlos Rodriguez, for Mr. Harris

Bryan Lumpkin, for Mr. Harris 

Judge Staley Clark to prospective jurors: "I’ll ask you to be as relaxed as you can." She explains that the process of making juror strikes will be silent but asks the prospective jurors to be quiet. "We’ll try to go through the process of jury selection, without y’all chatting or visiting with one another."

Mr. Phillips if you’ll go forward, please."

A court officer in a light gray blazer begins quietly passing papers back and forth between the prosecution and defense. The attorneys make notations on the paper and on their notepads, and then pass the papers back again.

9:10 a.m.

Court is in session. Judge and attorneys talking about jury selection and a single motion the judge wants to hear before opening statements. 

Judge Mary Staley Clark: "Juror 25 overslept. He’s on his way. He just advised he’s 30 minutes en route. I just had Mr. Perdue call him and say there is no traffic around here, so he needs to be here in five minutes or I’m sending the sheriff. . . ."

Justin Ross Harris and one of his attorneys appear be wearing the same color of blue tie. Defense asks to bring prospective Juror 29 in to question her about an elective medical procedure that has come up since jury questioning. Prosecution says it has no objection. 

Judge says she doesn't think it's necessary but permits it. Judge checks her watch at 9:30 a.m. Jury 29 is brought in. She says, "All I can tell you is that she (the doctor) wanted me to get it done. I've got several nodules, so many they cannot all be biopsied. They will go to pathology after the surgery. I don't know what to tell you. I know it's at the last minute. It's not intentional. Think about jury duty versus -- and I am a nurse -- having your throat cut. It's six of one, a half-dozen of the other."

At judge's instruction, defense and prosecution briefly confer. Judge says, "I'm going to leave her on the panel. I'm going to leave it up to the parties." 

Judge: "What is the status of our juror who has not gotten here yet."Response: "He's here now." 

Judge: "Good. Let's start jury selection. . . . Let's bring them in."

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