Harris prosecutors built a mountain of incriminating evidence

It wasn’t just Ross Harris’ unusual demeanor on the day his 22-month-old son died. It wasn’t Harris sleeping with prostitutes, his sexting with underage girls. It wasn’t only the close proximity of his child’s car seat inside the car, just inches away from Harris’ head. And it wasn’t just the “We both need escapes” message Harris sent a female stranger just minutes before he locked Cooper into his car for the last time.

It was all of those things and more: prosecutors constructed a mountain of evidence — much of it circumstantial, most of it profoundly incriminating — to convict Harris of maliciously killing his son on June 18, 2014.

Lead prosecutor Chuck Boring emerged from the courthouse Monday afternoon after speaking with the jurors, none of whom would discuss their deliberations with the media. The jury indicated there was no one single piece of evidence that made all the difference, Boring said.

“It wasn’t just one thing, in speaking to the jurors,” he said. “It was just everything. You look at one thing, maybe that can be excused. But then you look at this part and this part and this part. And the only thing that makes sense was his guilt.”

The jury said it was almost unanimous from the outset. But it only arrived at its verdict after spending days looking through hundreds of exhibits admitted into evidence.

Harris’ lead defense attorney, Maddox Kilgore, accused Cobb police of a rush to judgment, of believing Harris was guilty and then looking for evidence to support that belief. If they had looked at the evidence in a way that was favorable to Harris, they would have arrived at the correct conclusion that Cooper’s death was a horrible accident, Kilgore said.

He insisted, as he has from the start, that Harris is completely innocent.

During his closing argument last week, Boring doubled down on a number of important factors, refusing to accept any other interpretation of the evidence.

After taking Cooper to Chick-fil-A that morning and then leaving him in the car in his office parking lot, Harris returned to his car twice that day. He went back once at lunchtime to toss light bulbs inside the car and again in the afternoon when he said he left work to go to the movies.

During those two occasions, and while driving to work from Chick-fil-A, there was no way Harris could not have noticed Cooper inside the SUV, the prosecutor contended.

“That morning, he had strapped that child into his car seat – this wide-awake, beautiful 22-month-old child, who is excited to go to school and actually said as much – into a car seat that was clearly visible to anyone inside that car,” Boring told jurors during closing arguments. “That was clearly visible to this defendant.”

Throughout the trial, Boring also focused on Harris’ demeanor after he pulled his son from his car that afternoon and how he acted during his subsequent interview with lead detective Phil Stoddard. It was only after Harris knew he was charged that he finally showed true emotion when he met his then-wife, Leanna Taylor, later at police headquarters, Boring said.

Jurors turned their attention to Harris’ conversations with the detective and with his wife at police headquarters. On the first full day of deliberations, they watched videos of those meetings in which Harris’s conduct – at times calm and collected, at times panicked and emotional – was front and center.

Marietta criminal defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant, who has closely followed the trial, said the defendant’s response shortly after his son’s death was likely a huge factor.

“I hate that, because it’s not evidence of anything,” Merchant said. “But they expected him to act a certain way. And there’s no explanation why he acted the way he did.”

The prosecution team smeared Harris up and down the Glynn County courtroom, exposing his thermonuclear sex drive and desire to sleep with just about any woman or man who’d join him. His incessant sexting was a central theme of the prosecution’s case.

And that culminated on the morning of Cooper’s death, with Harris messaging a female stranger, “I love my son and all but we both need escapes,” just minutes before leaving his son in the car.

Boring said it was his belief that Harris had been planning on killing Cooper for some time before he actually did it. That morning’s “escapes” message, though, may have been the trigger that caused Harris to ponder the unthinkable. Just minutes later, Boring said, Harris seized the moment, leaving his son to die a horrific death.

During the trial, defense attorney Kilgore repeatedly showed that Harris was a loving, doting father. Harris was planning a family vacation that included his son. The night before Cooper’s death, he had searched on the Internet the cost of children’s passports, the defense attorney noted.

If Harris had been living a double life, as prosecutors said, there was a constant in both lives, Kilgore said.

“You see, in both of these lives the state wants to tell you about double lives, in both of them there’s something that’s the same, that’s very the same in both, and that’s that he loved his little boy,” Kilgore said.

Boring did not deny that Harris seemed to love his son. He may even have wavered and had been conflicted about actually killing Cooper — until the right moment presented itself, the prosecutor said.

“This is one of those occasions where obviously actions speak louder than words,” Boring said after the verdict. “And anybody who could do this, and the evidence showed that he did this intentionally, he has malice in his heart, absolutely.”

Email staff writers Bill Rankin and Christian Boone.