Prosecution: Sexting shows motive in toddler's hot car death

As he shared a final meal with the 22-month-old son he’s accused of killing, Justin Ross Harris engaged in an online conversation with a woman who had just posted that she hated being married with kids, prosecutors revealed Monday.

“I love my son and all but we both need escapes,” Harris responded, according to the lead detective in the case.

» Listen to Breakdown Season 2 on the Justin Ross Harris case here.

Fifteen minutes later, Harris reported to work at Home Depot, leaving his son locked inside his SUV. Cooper Harris died of hyperthermia due to intense heat inside the vehicle.

Prosecutors, attempting to prove the Marietta father intentionally left the child in the vehicle, say Harris’ response to the woman speaks to motive. The defense argued the comments were irrelevant, as were sexually explicit photos Harris exchanged with an underage girl.

Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley denied a motion to try charges related to the photos separately from the other charges filed against Harris, including malice murder, felony murder and cruelty to children.

“How does sending these photos show disposition to killing a child?” defense lawyer Maddox Kilgore said.

The 34-year-old web developer pleaded not guilty to all charges and has been held without bond since his arrest in June 2014. Staley set a Feb. 22 trial date despite statements from the defense that they may not be ready to proceed by then.

Whenever the trial commences, Monday’s ruling assured that Harris’ sex life will be a key component of the state’s case.

Family was a “hurdle” that stood in the way of Harris’ desire to be with as many women as possible, Cobb Assistant District Attorney Chuck Boring said.

Motive is important, said Atlanta criminal defense lawyer Steve Sadow, who is not connected with the case, because “there has to be a reason why he intentionally (killed his son). They have to prove malicious intent.”

But details of Harris’ alleged sex addiction could explain what caused him to be distracted enough to forget about his son, Sadow said.

Neither side denies Harris was actively engaged in online chats, mostly sexual, with numerous women. Cobb Police Detective Phil Stoddard testified he sent 40,000 texts using the Whisper messaging app alone.

Kilgore said that, while the conversations may reveal his client to be a “philanderer” or “adulterer,” they don’t indicate a motive.

“The state wants to bootstrap every bad act they can think of to prove some grand conspiracy,” he said.

Under cross examination, Kilgore grilled Stoddard about the other motives previously introduced by the state.

At one time, prosecutors suggested Harris was trying to collect on a life insurance policy. There were also thinly veiled allegations that Harris and his wife Leanna conspired to kill their son.

“Is there another motive?” Kilgore asked.

“There could be,” Stoddard replied.

Sadow said that uncertainty could provide an opening for the defense.

“There’s a danger of introducing too many motives,” he said.

But prosecutors seem to be focusing on Harris’ stated desire to be single again. On the day his son died, Harris was engaged in online chats with six women or girls, Stoddard testified.

Not all the conversations were sexually charged, however. One of the minors Harris spoke to online said Harris often talked about how much he loved his son and even sent photos of Cooper from a family vacation, Stoddard said. She said Harris also discouraged her from dropping out of school.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.