Almost at the end of jury selection, the judge in the Justin Ross Harris case on Monday granted a change of venue in the case, which likely will delay the trial for months and move it far from Marietta.
One of the most complex and heartbreaking trials in the history of Cobb County has been thrown into s moving through jury selection. The death of Cooper Harris, left in his father’s SUV on a sweltering June day, attracted worldwide attention and condemnation of Cooper’s dad, Justin Ross Harris. Harris has been in the Cobb County jail since the day his son died. Now, as he goes on trial for murder, here’s what you need to know.
1. The key to it all: the jury: As of Monday the court had qualified 41 people to serve on the jury -- just one shy of the total needed to make final strikes and selections. But the judge discarded that work and decided to start the case all over again in a different venue. That venue has yet to be decided, and the trial is unlikely to start until September.
2. Key charges against Harris: The state has charged malice murder, which means the killer intended to kill. But it has also charged two counts of felony murder, which is a death that occurs during the commission of a felony. In this case, the underlying felonies are: cruelty to children in the first degree (for intentionally leaving Cooper in the hot car) and cruelty to children in the second degree (for negligently leaving Cooper in the hot car). A conviction on any of the murder charges would carry a life sentence, with 30 years to serve before possibility of parole.
3. Key prosecution evidence: There is no hard evidence that Ross Harris intended to kill his child. But what could be the most damning evidence against Harris is a series of texts he sent as he ate breakfast that morning with Cooper at a Chick-fil-A. Harris exchanged texts with an anonymous woman (tagged “AlwaysInMyFeelings”). The woman had posted the following message on the social media app Whisper: “I hate being married with kids. The novelty has worn off and I have nothing to show for it.” She went on to say she felt unappreciated and resented her husband. Harris wrote back, “I love my son and all, but we both need escapes.” He wrote this just minutes before he strapped Cooper into his car seat for the last time.
4. Key prosecution witness: The primary witness for the prosecution is likely to be Cobb County police Detective Phil Stoddard, who was the lead investigator on the case. He has already testified extensively in pretrial hearings and has sometimes seemed to exaggerate the evidence or has made statements that were simply incorrect. Prosecutors also will call a number of women Harris either had sex with or exchanged lewd texts and photos with – and attempt to show that Harris’ preoccupation with women and sex led him to kill his son.
5. Key defense witness: It seemed inevitable that Leanna Taylor, mother of Cooper, would divorce Ross Harris, and she did. It became final in March. But her plan to testify in his defense came as a surprise to many. Taylor’s attorney says she has always thought Cooper’s death was an accident and believes that Ross was a good father. The defense will also put up a memory expert who will say how a committed parent could actually forget their child is with them.
6. Key attorneys: Lead prosecutor is Chuck Boring, who heads the special victims unit in the Cobb district attorney’s office and has years of experience prosecuting crimes against children. Leading the defense team is H. Maddox Kilgore, formerly a prosecutor in Cobb County and also in the state attorney general’s office. He now is in private practice in Marietta.
7. Key coverage: AJC reporters Christian Boone and Bill Rankin are staffing the trial. Rankin has recorded the special five-episode “Breakdown” podcast on the case. Boone, who has covered the case since the beginning, and Rankin will attend what is expected to be a six-week trial and will file updates, continual tweets and related articles throughout the day and podcast updates as the case unfolds.
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