Justin Ross Harris makes case for new trial in son’s hot car death

Justin Ross Harris during his murder trial in 2016 in Brunswick. (Stephen B. Morton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP Pool)

Justin Ross Harris during his murder trial in 2016 in Brunswick. (Stephen B. Morton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP Pool)

Lawyers for Justin Ross Harris will argue starting Monday that evidence wrongly admitted, and questions not permitted, put their client in an untenable position during his 2016 murder trial.

Harris was convicted of purposely leaving his son inside a hot car to die on June 18, 2014. The 40-year-old former Home Depot web developer is serving a life sentence plus 32 years at Macon State Prison in south central Georgia.

The odds that the defense motion for a new trial will be granted are long, as the presiding judge, Mary Staley Clark, would have to admit her rulings gave the state an unfair advantage. While it’s not unprecedented for a judge to rule against themselves, it’s rare, said Marietta criminal defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant.

“This is an opportunity for the lawyers to put up evidence,” Merchant said. “Whatever happens, it’s going to be appealed.”

The attorneys who represented Harris at his murder trial are expected to testify as witnesses, as they’ve been cited in the motion by Harris’ new attorney, Mitch Durham, for ineffective assistance of counsel.

Merchant said that’s not necessarily an indictment against the original defense team: Maddox Kilgore, Carlos Rodriguez and Bryan Lumpkin. Without the motion, Merchant said, they would not be allowed to testify.

In an interview Friday morning, the defense trio said the judge’s rulings prevented them from challenging the credibility of Cobb County police — a key component of their strategy.

“We now know the police, in conjunction with the district attorney’s office, put out false information,” Kilgore said. “(Lead detective) Phil Stoddard lied on several occasions, such as his testimony that Harris was involved in a group promoting a ‘child-free’ lifestyle.”

That was one of the most explosive allegations leveled against Harris at a probable cause hearing held a few weeks after his son’s death. Another, which appeared in search warrants obtained under oath by Cobb Detective Shawn Murphy, claimed Harris researched child deaths inside vehicles, including the temperature and length of time needed for that to occur.

“The state provided sufficient evidence that defendant’s motive to intentionally murder his 22-month-old son was to live a life without children, to be able to divorce his wife and then to have numerous sexual relationships,” prosecutors said in their response to the motion for a new trial.

That motive, said Kilgore, was built on lies.

“Not only did Ross never say those things, he never did those things,” he said.

The child-free group had come up in a Google chat with a co-worker, prosecution witness Alex Hall, who sent Harris the link to the Reddit subgroup. Harris’ response? “Grossness!”

Harris had watched a video, which popped up on Reddit, in which a veterinarian depicted the dangers of leaving a dog inside a hot car.

“This was our big play,” Kilgore said. “To show that detectives were willing to lie under oath.”

But Judge Staley Clark ruled that was irrelevant to the question of whether baby Cooper Harris was murdered, effectively neutering the defense’s attempts to attack the detectives’ credibility.

The defense will also argue they lost their star witness, an expert who has testified in other cases where parents left their children inside hot cars, after the judge ruled they must turn over notes from his discussions with Harris and his lawyers to the prosecution.

“That put us at an incredible disadvantage,” Kilgore said. “It’s dangerous for us to put an expert up there knowing they’ve got documents that allows them to put words in Ross’ mouth.”

Merchant, who followed the case closely, said she believes the defense will eventually prevail.

“The judge held the two sides to different standards,” favoring the state, she said.

Judge Staley Clark has cleared three days for the hearing, which will be held virtually, with the attorneys and witnesses appearing via Zoom.