Georgia Supreme Court tosses Harris’ murder conviction in hot car case

Justin Ross Harris is sentenced in December 2016 to life in prison for killing his 22-month-old son, Cooper. (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS

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Justin Ross Harris is sentenced in December 2016 to life in prison for killing his 22-month-old son, Cooper. (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS

Credit: Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS

The Georgia Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned the hot-car murder conviction against Justin Ross Harris in a case that attracted international attention.

The court, in a 6-3 decision, ruled that Harris did not receive a fair trial because days of testimony detailing his extramarital sexual relationships should not have been allowed. Harris, who was sentenced to life in prison without the chance for parole, is now entitled to a new trial on the murder charge alleging he purposefully left his 22-month-old son Cooper in his SUV to die.

The court upheld convictions against Harris for exchanging graphic text messages to an underage girl, for which he was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He has been in custody since 2014.

“The state convincingly demonstrated that (Harris) was a philanderer, a pervert and even a sexual predator,” Chief Justice David Nahmias wrote in a 134-page opinion.

“This evidence did little if anything to answer the key question of (Harris’) intent when he walked away from Cooper,” Nahmias wrote. But it likely led jurors to conclude he was the kind of person who “who would engage in other morally repulsive conduct (like leaving his child to die painfully in a hot car) and who deserved punishment, even if the jurors were not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that he purposefully killed Cooper.”

Nahmias added that evidence properly admitted at trial that Harris intentionally left Cooper to die “was far from overwhelming.”

Cobb County District Attorney Flynn Broady said his office will ask the state high court to reconsider its decision. He declined further comment.

If the ruling stands, the DA can retry Harris for murder, not retry him or try to reach an agreement in which Harris would plead guilty to a lesser charge.

Harris also could be tried for charges in a still-pending indictment handed up in March 2016, more than a year after he was indicted for murder. In that case, Harris is accused of possessing lewd photographs of two underage girls; sending nude photos to those girls and one other; and engaging in sexually explicit chats with all three. The indictment includes two counts of sexual exploitation of children and six of disseminating harmful material to a minor.

The hot car case attracted intense publicity. When it was determined an unbiased jury could not be found in Cobb County, the trial was moved from Marietta to Brunswick.

On June 18, 2014, Harris left home with Cooper to drop him off at day care before going to work at Home Depot. They stopped to eat breakfast at a Chick-fil-A. But Harris later told police he forgot to drop off Cooper and mistakenly left him in his rear-facing car seat in the back seat of his SUV in the company parking lot.

Within hours, Cooper had died from heatstroke. Harris told police he realized his mistake when, driving away from work, he noticed his dead son in his car seat.

In the ensuing days, the case attracted widespread attention with revelations that Harris, who was married, was having sexual relations with a number of women, including prostitutes.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Breakdown podcast covered the case in its second season: “Death in a Hot Car — Mistake or Murder?”

Prosecutors contended Harris killed his son to live a child-free life so he could pursue sexual relationships with other women. But his attorneys said what happened was a tragic accident, that Harris simply forgot the son he loved was in his car seat when he got out of the car to go to work.

Maddox Kilgore, one of Harris’ trial attorneys, praised the Supreme Court’s ruling to throw out the murder conviction.

“I believed then he was innocent and I still believe he’s innocent,” Kilgore said. “This was the right decision.”

Credit: Veronica Waters

Credit: Veronica Waters

Judge Mary Staley Clark, who presided over the sensational trial, should never had allowed “bad character evidence” to be admitted against Harris, Kilgore said. “As a direct result of the court’s errors, an innocent man has been languishing in prison all these years.”

Nahmias wrote that Clark improperly allowed three categories of needlessly cumulative and highly prejudicial evidence: testimony that Harris exchanged graphic sexual messages and photos with four minors; nine color photos, taken from Harris’ phone and enlarged as full-page exhibits, of Harris’ genitalia; and testimony that Harris hired a prostitute three times.

This evidence “ensured that the jurors did not miss the point that he was a repulsive person,” Nahmias wrote. But if Harris is ultimately to be found guilty of his son’s death, “it will need to be by a jury not tainted by that sort of evidence.”

Justice Charles Bethel dissented, saying the state should have been allowed “to introduce, in detail, evidence of the nature, scope and extent of the truly sinister motive it ascribed to Harris.” He was joined by Justices Shawn LaGrua and Verda Colvin.

Bethel called the case extraordinary and noted the court rarely sees one in which diametrically opposed conclusions could be reached by fair-minded jurors from the same evidence.

“Was he the heartless, sex-crazed killer of the state’s telling?” Bethel asked. “Or a deeply flawed but loving father overwhelmed by the demands of life and work whose worst day resulted in his most costly mistake?”

Bethel said he believed the evidence of Harris’ sexual activities “was not introduced in this case merely to cast Harris in a bad light; that evidence went to the heart of the state’s case.”

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