Wife of hot-car-death dad: Divorcing him, but still loves him

Leanna Harris stuck by Ross even after a probable cause hearing where prosecutors chronicled her husband's alleged sexual escapades in lurid detail.

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

But now she has filed for divorce in Cobb County Superior Court, saying the couple’s once strong bond is “irretrievably broken.”

The divorce filing could bolster the prosecution's contention that Ross had grown unhappy in his marriage and was engaged in sexually charged relationships with numerous women via his smart phone, even boasting that he was unfaithful and Leanna knew it. Prosecutors contend that despite the face he showed to friends, of a devoted, doting father, Ross Harris longed for the freedom of a childless life.

Harris has said his son's death was a terrible accident.

The timing of Leanna Harris’ divorce complaint, two months before her husband’s trial is set to begin April 11, has led some to speculate that she may no longer be in her spouse’s corner.

But those close to the couple say that isn’t the case. Leanna, they say, reached out to Ross’ family Wednesday to let them know she was filing for divorce. She told them that she loved them, and that she still loved Ross. But she needs to move on.

“It is a very sad situation for everyone involved,” friend Julia Apodaca-Lane wrote in an email Thursday to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “This obviously isn’t the place they wanted this to end up, and they have worked very hard to keep it from this.”

‘Divorce doesn’t change anything’

Whether Leanna will be called to testify in the murder trial of their son Cooper is unlikely to be affected by the dissolution of their marriage, legal experts say.

Typically, spouses can’t be forced to testify against each other in a criminal trial, a rule known as the marital privilege. In recent years, however, Georgia created an exemption to that rule in cases where crimes are committed against children under the age of 18.

“The rules of evidence make it very clear that marital confidence won’t apply,” said Marietta criminal defense attorney Philip Holloway, who is not acting as counsel in the case. “So a divorce doesn’t change anything.”

Ross knew Leanna was going to seek a divorce, and he understands her need to do it, those close to the couple said. Family members continue to visit him in jail, where he's remained since Cooper's death. But they can only see him through a video monitor. They view this latest development as yet another tragedy heaped upon an innocent man and his family.

Now living in Alabama, Leanna proposes she and her husband keep whatever personal property they each brought into the marriage — and whatever debt remains after nearly 10 years of marriage. She also requests sole possession of the couple’s 2012 Toyota Camry, and that Ross Harris be responsible for all attorney’s fees and litigation costs.

If uncontested, “as expected,” according to the complaint, the divorce could be finalized before Ross Harris stands trial.

A marriage in trouble

After Ross Harris’ was arrested and accusations emerged that he was sexting younger women, some people thought the marriage was unlikely to survive.

“I guess it was just a matter of time,” said Joe Saini, the couple’s former landlord. “Once she learned about these indiscretions, I imagine she got a pretty good feeling about what was going on. What kind of marriage could they have? You almost have to break it off.”

Saini recalled happier times for the couple, who rented his condo on Wynnes Ridge Circle in Marietta.

The couple met in 1994, and after their first date Ross told a friend he was going to marry Leanna.

The AJC spoke to numerous friends and family members in the fall of 2014. At the time, family friend Angie Bond said that several times a week, Leanna visited the grave of her son, Cooper. She laid down a blanket, settled herself on it, and waited for a phone call from her husband in jail.

Friends described Ross as gregarious and undisciplined, deeply religious but not averse to coloring outside the lines. Leanna shared his faith but not his temperament. She was a motivator and a planner who steadied him, perhaps to a degree he sometimes chafed at. He pushed her to be more social and calmed her when she obsessed about her weight.

Saini said when he met the Harrises they was actively shopping for a house. They wanted additional space for their son to run around in a backyard.

Though he said he liked Ross Harris before the arrest, he finds it impossible to stand behind his former tenant.

“I don’t know if he’s guilty, but I know I can’t defend him,” Saini said.

At Cooper's funeral, Leanna, in her first public comments about her son's death, said her husband "was and is a wonderful father," prompting mourners to stand and applaud for the beleaguered couple.

On Thursday, Leanna’s friend Apodaca-Lane said, “We all still support Ross.”

Leanna will never stop loving him, and Ross will always love her, she said. “But they need to take care of themselves for a while.”

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