Dad’s demeanor scrutinized as hearings conclude in hot car death case


What’s next?

Hearings will resume Oct. 12, at which time Judge Mary Staley will rule on some of the more technical legal motions argued Monday. Staley said she also intends on setting a trial date. Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds recently told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution the trial won’t begin until sometime in 2016.

The demeanor of Justin Ross Harris in the hours just after his son was found dead could become a significant issue in the trial of the Cobb County father accused of intentionally leaving the toddler in a hot car to die.

The former Home Depot web developer watched Tuesday as prosecutors played videotape of his June 2014 interview with police recorded just hours after 22-month-old Cooper’s death. It was presented to counter the defense’s claim that police had failed to properly inform Harris of his rights.

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Harris appeared relaxed and chatty in the video, informing investigators he used to work in law enforcement, as a dispatcher with Tuscaloosa police.

“It’s abundantly clear that Cobb police and the prosecution believe his demeanor on the scene and during police questioning was inconsistent with a grieving father,” said Marietta criminal defense attorney Philip Holloway, who attended two days of motions hearings that concluded Tuesday. He is not involved with the case.

Harris, 34, pleaded not guilty last September to charges including malice murder, felony murder and cruelty to children. He has been held without bond ever since.

Defense attorney Maddox Kilgore, moving to suppress statements made by Harris in the parking lot where he discovered his son’s dead body and at Cobb police headquarters, said his client was handcuffed and detained without being read his Miranda rights.

Then, after Harris told investigators he didn’t want to speak further without an attorney present, Kilgore alleged they continued questioning him, a charge denied by Cobb Police Detective Phil Stoddard.

Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley denied the motions, saying officers were not required to read Harris his Miranda rights until after they arrested him.

Upon learning of the charges against him, Harris told investigators he had “no malicious intent,” according to prosecutors.

“We found that unusual,” Stoddard said, adding that Harris seemed well-versed on the charges.

Though cordial with the investigators who interviewed him, one of the first officers to encounter Harris said he was initially dismissive and combative.

Detective Jacquelyn Piper said Harris continued talking after she instructed him to conclude his cell phone conversation, then told a fellow officer who repeated the order to “shut the (expletive) up!”

It’s unknown who Harris was talking with at the time.

Piper testified Harris later asked her to call his wife, Leanna, because she was supposed to pick up their son from daycare.

“No question there were some things revealed in court that have the potential to do great harm (to the defense),” Holloway said. “Jurors do consider demeanor of criminal defendants but demeanor alone is not enough to convict.”

Kilgore waived his motion challenging Harris’ invocation of marital privilege regarding a conversation, recorded by investigators, with his wife at the police station.

Though the defense was unsuccessful in all its arguments, including Monday's bid to bar the media from covering Harris' pre-trial hearings, Holloway said Kilgore made "very strong arguments" concerning Harris' Miranda rights. Those arguments could lay the groundwork for an appeal if jurors convict, he said.