Four months have passed since Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley Clark, faced with a jury pool generally hostile to the defendant, granted a change of venue for the trial of Justin Ross Harris.
On Monday, a second round of jury selection begins some 300 miles away in Brunswick, where potential jurors are expected to be more open-minded toward the former Home Depot web developer accused of intentionally locking his 22-month-old son inside a hot car to die.
“We needed to move it outside the Atlanta media market that covered this case so extensively,” Cobb Superior Court Administrator Tom Charron said recently. “As a matter of fact, talking to the court officials down there, several of them had to think a minute before (they said), ‘Oh yeah, I think I heard something about that case.’”
That’ll change over the next two months as one of the more sensational trials in recent memory plays out in the small coastal town.
Here’s what you can expect:
It took three grueling weeks to qualify 41 prospective jurors in the spring. One more was needed before lawyers began whittling the total down to the final 12, along with alternate jurors, when Staley Clark agreed Harris, charged with eight felonies, including multiple murder counts, couldn’t get a fair trial in Cobb.
It’s expected to take considerably less time this go around. Two weeks have been allotted and lawyers for both sides seem confident that will be enough.
Opening statements are scheduled for Oct. 3 but could possibly start sooner, depending on how fast a jury is selected. Due to prior commitments of counsel, court will not be in session during the last week of September. The trial is expected to last up to six weeks.
THE STATE VS. JUSTIN ROSS HARRIS
To those who knew him, Harris, a Tuscaloosa native, was a loving husband and doting father. Prosecutors will argue that he was living a lie; that his desire to be single and childless led him to do the unthinkable and murder his only child.
They’ll spend considerable time revisiting Harris’ actions in the weeks and months leading up to the toddler’s death — his research into how long someone could survive locked in a hot car, visits to a Reddit discussion promoting a “child-free lifestyle,” alleged serial philandering and “sexting.”
At a probable cause hearing in July 2014, Cobb Police Detective Phil Stoddard, the lead investigator on the case, painted a portrait of a monster, alleging that as his son was dying in one of the cruelest ways possible, Harris was engaged in sexually charged chats with at least six women.
Among the other allegations leveled by Stoddard:
Even more damning was Harris’ reply to a social media post from an anonymous mother regretting her decision to have children.
“I love my son and all,” Harris wrote 10 minutes before he left Cooper in his car. “But we both need escapes.”
If Harris’ lawyers are successful, Stoddard’s testimony could end up proving more harmful to the prosecution. They are expected to focus on contradictions that emerged that put into question some of the investigator’s claims.
Stoddard initially testified that, when Harris went to his car at lunchtime, some three hours after leaving Cooper inside, he had a “clear view” of his son.
But Home Depot security footage shows Harris’ eyes were focused above the roof line of the car as he tossed light bulbs he had just bought into the front seat. (During a motions hearing last month, Stoddard walked back that claim, testifying Harris’ head never went below the SUV’s roof line.) Stoddard further alleged that Harris seemed preoccupied by a passerby in the parking garage, but on video surveillance Harris appears oblivious to the man walking past his vehicle.
The detective also spoke of “the smell of death” in Harris’ car that lingered even hours after Cooper’s body was removed. But former DeKalb County Chief Medical Examiner Joe Burton, now a consultant in forensic pathology, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution such odor-causing decomposition generally takes 24 hours.
“I doubt he would smell anything,” Burton said.
Charron, the court administrator, said the first round of jury selection in Cobb cost the county $8,025. In July, the Cobb Board of Commissioners voted to spend up to $200,000 from a contingency fund for death penalty cases on the Brunswick round of the Harris trial. The money will be needed to pay for housing for both the defense and the prosecution along with the judge, bailiffs and other court personnel.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will have reporters in Brunswick covering the trial through its completion. Follow their live updates on Twitter at @AJCBreakdown.
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.