Judge to decide whether her rulings deprived Ross Harris of fair trial

Justin Ross Harris during testimony at his trial in the Glynn County courthouse in Brunswick. At left is a member of his defense team, Carlos Rodriguez. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution / Stephen Morton)
Caption
Justin Ross Harris during testimony at his trial in the Glynn County courthouse in Brunswick. At left is a member of his defense team, Carlos Rodriguez. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution / Stephen Morton)

Hearing for a new trial concludes; decision still to come

It was 2016, and Ross Harris’ defense team was convinced they had the state’s forensic computer expert right where they wanted him.

Jim Persinger, insisting he had conducted a thorough examination into Harris’ web searches and habits, had concluded the former defendant’s internet behavior “indicated someone who was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” said attorney Carlos Rodriguez, a member of the defense team that represented Harris at his 2016 murder trial. Rodriguez testified Tuesday as a defense witness at Harris’ hearing for a new trial.

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Persinger’s alleged discoveries fit neatly into the prosecution’s theory explaining why, on June 18, 2014, Harris set out to kill his 22-month-old son Cooper by leaving him locked inside a hot SUV. He was consumed by sexual fantasies, the motive followed, and wanted to pursue a hedonistic lifestyle free from parental responsibilities.

The defense, eager to challenge the credibility of many of the prosecution witnesses, had identified several holes in Persinger’s testimony.

“All that information in reality would expose how biased his investigation was,” Rodriguez said.

But the defense was thwarted by Judge Mary Staley Clark, who sustained repeated state objections that served to protect Persinger. Harris was ultimately found guilty of maliciously killing his son and is serving a life sentence plus 32 years in prison.

His hearing for a new trial concluded Tuesday.

ExploreComplete coverage of the Justin Ross Harris case

It wasn’t just the experts like Persinger who found safe haven in Staley Clark’s rulings, the defense alleges. There were also the Cobb County police investigators who, according to Harris’ defense, provided false testimony to secure search warrants.

“Everything was biased in their minds and continued to get worse, as I saw it,” defense co-counsel Bryan Lumpkin testified. “We weren’t allowed to put up the evidence that bore that out.”

With Staley Clark presiding, Harris’ appellate lawyer, Mitch Durham, argued Tuesday that Staley Clark’s decisions in the 2016 murder trial made it impossible for his client to receive a fair shake. While Staley Clark is not expected to rule against herself, testimony from this week’s hearing will inform the appeal likely to follow in the Georgia Supreme Court.

Persinger, for example, made several nefarious insinuations about the time Harris spent on a psychologist’s website right before Cooper’s death. It was clear, Rodriguez testified Tuesday, that Persinger either did not know Harris had contracted with the psychologist to develop his site or prosecutors “were trying to pull a fast one on me.”

“I wanted to confront him with all the easily available, easily discoverable information that would’ve made it clear to him (that Harris) wasn’t involved in some kind of conniving plan to prepare for a criminal trial,” Rodriguez said. “All that information in reality would expose how biased his investigation was.”

But he didn’t get the chance.

“You can’t impeach someone with evidence they didn’t know,” Cobb Assistant District Attorney Linda Dunikoski said Tuesday, explaining the state’s position in the 2016 trial. Staley Clark sided with the state back then. It remains to be seen whether she’s changed her mind.

Dunikoski fought back against defense claims that the judge prevented them from thoroughly challenging state witnesses.

Quoting lead defense counsel Maddox Kilgore, “In his opinion, they did a great job of destroying law enforcement,” Dunikoski said.

There was additional unfounded testimony about Harris from state witnesses, according to the defense. He never created a Whisper post saying “I hate being married with kids,” nor did he search for information about how long it takes for a child to die in a hot car, Rodriguez said.

Whether those factors amount to substantial harm requiring a new trial will be up to Judge Staley Clark, whose ruling will come sometime in the new year.

Harris, who appeared via Zoom at the virtual hearing, remains incarcerated at Macon State Prison in south central Georgia.