Divorce won't affect whether mom in hot-car death case must testify at trial

Leanna Harris’ petition for divorce from the man charged with murder in the hot-car death of their toddler son won’t affect whether she can be forced to testify during his trial in April.

Her husband, Justin Ross Harris, is accused of deliberately leaving 22-month-old Cooper in a locked SUV for nearly seven hours on a hot June day in 2014. Ross Harris' maintains it was an accident.

Whether the Harris’ are still married could be irrelevant when it comes to whether Leanna Harris will have to testify during her husband’s trial.

Spouses typically can’t be forced to testify against each other in a criminal trial because of a rule known as martial 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.

That exemption means Leanna Harris may be required to testify whether or not she’s still married to Ross Harris.

The divorce filing, obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday, reveals little about the couple's marriage.

Leanna Harris stood by her husband’s side throughout much of his incarceration, talking regularly by phone and maintaining his innocence. She’s been separated from her husband since his arrest for Cooper’s murder on June 18, 2014, and “continues to live in a bona fide state of separation,” the complaint states.

Now living in Alabama, Leanna Harris 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. Leanna Harris 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.

Her lawyer, Lawrence Zimmerman, confirmed that he filed the papers in Cobb Superior Court but would make no further comment.

Harris' husband, Justin Ross Harris, is facing a malice murder charge in the death of his son, Cooper. Police say Harris left his son in the car deliberately and then pretended that he had forgotten to drop Cooper off at daycare before going to work.

Ross Harris has been in jail since the day his son died. His trial is scheduled to begin April 11.

» LEARN MORE: View our special report, "Hot car death: Mistake or murder?," on MyAJC.com

It was not immediately possible to assess the impact of the divorce filing so close to Harris' murder trial, although it can't have been good news for the defense, which is already dealing with highly publicized accusations concerning Harris' extramarital activities.

The investigation of Cooper's death brought that behavior to light. Police say Harris was exchanging lewd text messages with multiple women on the day his son lay dying in his car. A friend of Leanna's said last year that Ross and Leanna Harris were loving parents but that their marriage was sometimes "rocky."

Other than confirming that his client had filed for divorce, Zimmerman said the dissolution of the Harrises' marriage is a private matter and he would not discuss it.

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