Justin Ross Harris
Before his arrest for Cooper’s murder, Harris had never been in trouble with the law and at one time worked as a 911 dispatcher in Alabama. He was raised in the Tuscaloosa area and graduated from the University of Alabama. He accepted a job as a web developer with Home Depot in 2012 and moved to Marietta with his wife and their newborn son. Harris has been held in the Cobb County Jail since the day his only child died, June 18, 2014.
Born and raised about an hour outside of Tuscaloosa, Leanna was set up on a blind date with Ross Harris in 2004, after which Harris told friends he was “going to marry that girl.” The couple tied the knot in 2006. Shortly after they moved to Marietta in 2012, Leanna gave birth to Cooper. Even as sordid details about Ross’s extramarital sex life emerged in the weeks after Cooper’s death, Leanna continued to stand by her husband. But right before jury selection began in Cobb, she sought and was granted a divorce. She is still expected to be a key witness for the defense. Her attorney says Taylor — she now goes by her maiden name — remains convinced that her son’s death was an accident.
Harris’s lead defense attorney was once a prosecutor in the Cobb district attorney’s office. Early in his career, Kilgore worked in the criminal division of the state attorney general’s office, representing the state in criminal appeals. “I got to go to state prisons all over the state, up in the mountains, down in the swamps. If someone was trying to get out of jail on a technicality, I had to keep him in, ” he said during a recent talk at Kennesaw State University. He then prosecuted felony cases in the Cobb DA’s office for six years before moving over to the defense bar in 2005.
The prosecution of Ross Harris stands as the biggest case of Reynolds’ brief tenure as Cobb’s district attorney. The Rome native was a police officer before deciding to become a lawyer. He started off at a civil litigation firm before signing on as a prosecutor in the Fulton County DA’s office. He then moved to the Cobb DA’s office, later served as a judge and also practiced for several years as a defense attorney. His clients included Lynn Turner, the infamous Black Widow killer who was convicted of poisoning her two husbands with antifreeze. Reynolds was elected Cobb’s DA in 2012.
Cobb’s senior assistant district attorney leads the prosecution team. The Griffin native joined the Cobb DA’s office 15 years ago, focusing primarily on crimes against children. He now heads the Special Victims Unit. Said DA Reynolds: “Any time there is a case involving a child victim it goes through Chuck’s unit. … So in looking at this particular case, and obviously having a child victim, I made the decision to put Chuck as point on the case.”
The lead investigator in the Harris case has been a key witness for the prosecution in multiple pretrial hearings and, because of that testimony, is also expected to emerge as a major component of the defense’s case. The defense argues he focused on Harris from the beginning, going so far as to exaggerate or even fabricate testimony implicating the defendant in his son’s death. He joined the Cobb Police Department in 2007 after six years with Atlanta police and had worked in the CCPD’s crimes against persons unit for about seven months when he was assigned Harris’ case.
Mary Staley Clark
The Cobb Superior Court judge surprised observers when she granted a change of venue and will relocate to Glynn County along with court personnel for the duration of the trial. Staley Clark is a former assistant district attorney in Cobb who is widely viewed as one of the more prosecutor-friendly judges in metro Atlanta. She was elected to the bench in 1992 and is up for re-election in November.
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:
- After discovering Cooper's lifeless body, Harris didn't call 911.
- He neglected to tell police that he had returned to his car at lunchtime, placing two boxes of light bulbs he had just purchased inside the vehicle.
- When told he was being charged with murder, Harris remarked, "But there was no malicious intent." (Malice murder charges were added later.)
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.
About the Author
Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com