Unlike three weeks ago, when Justin Ross Harris was convicted of intentionally leaving his 22-month-old son inside a hot car to die, there was little drama surrounding the former Home Depot web developer’s sentencing Monday.
Following the prosecution’s recommendation, Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley Clark handed down the harshest possible punishment: Life in prison without the possibility of parole plus 32 years on the non-murder counts, including cruelty to children and sexual exploitation of a minor.
The state’s recommendation is the “very least” that could be considered just, the judge said. Jurors “found the defendant guilty of what factually was a horrendous, horrific experience for this 22-month-old child, who had been placed in the trust of his father in violation and dereliction of duty to that child, if not love of that child. (Harris) callously walked away and left that child in a hot car in June in Georgia in the summer to swelter and die.”
Harris, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, ankles shackled, declined the opportunity to speak on his own behalf. Lead defense attorney Maddox Kilgore offered no new evidence or mitigating circumstances, though he did restate his intention of filing a motion for a new trial.
It’s unlikely to be granted by Staley Clark, who engaged in some contentious exchanges with Kilgore throughout the trial and again on Monday, when she admonished him for not standing while addressing her.
In an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution following Harris’ conviction last month, Kilgore said the guilty verdict was reached, in large part, because of “breakdowns in the pre-trial phase, the motions phase. And there were breakdowns in the trial.”
Assuming the motion for a new trial is denied, Kilgore vowed to appeal.
“We’re going to have our day before the Supreme Court of Georgia,” Kilgore told The AJC. “Hopefully at that juncture some of these breakdowns will come to light and we’ll have another chance at trial.”
But that day won’t come anytime soon. Hemy Neuman, the Dunwoody engineer found guilty of fatally shooting entrepreneur Rusty Sneiderman outside a daycare facility, was granted a new trial by the state’s highest court three years after his initial conviction. He was convicted a second time in late August.
Harris’ conviction last month shocked his attorneys, who said they were convinced he would be acquitted on all the murder counts. Instead, as jurors would disclose to lawyers for both sides following their verdict, there was, from the beginning of deliberations, near-unanimity that Harris was guilty.
“I think the evidence that was presented at trial and the jury’s verdict basically says it all,” lead prosecutor Chuck Boring said in court Monday. “The evidence showed this defendant was driven by selfishness and committed an unspeakable act against his own flesh and blood in this case. Because of his behavior, a 22-month-old child was killed. A child’s death in the most tortuous, horrific, unimaginable way possible.”
Harris, now 36, left his toddler son Cooper strapped into a car seat in the back of his sweltering SUV for seven hours on June 18, 2014 — an accident, he claimed. He was supposed to take Cooper to day care that morning, but instead, just minutes after he and his son shared a final breakfast at Chick-fil-A, Harris drove straight to work.
“Demeanor and dirt,” as Kilgore characterized the prosecution’s strategy, ultimately proved too damning to ignore for the Glynn County jury. The trial was moved from Cobb to Brunswick after Staley Clark determined that an unbiased jury panel could not be found in Harris’ home county.
The defense’s motion for a new trial, and (likely) subsequent appeal, is expected to focus on what was a foundation of their case, that Cobb police jumped to conclusions about Harris’ guilt and massaged evidence that supported their theory.
They were circumvented by the judge’s rulings that, for example, stopped the defense from cross-examining the officer who applied for search warrants of Harris’ home in the initial stages of the investigation, said Ashleigh Merchant, a Marietta criminal defense attorney who has followed the case from the beginning.
Merchant said Harris’ lawyers are also likely to argue about the abundance of testimony allowed in the trial pertaining to Harris’ sexting and extramarital affairs. The defense contended those activities were largely irrelevant to the question of whether he intended to kill his son and would cloud jurors’ opinions of the defendant. For the prosecution, they pointed to motive, that Harris wanted a life free of familial responsibilities.
Dunwoody attorney Esther Panitch, who was in court for much of the trial and again on Monday, said it’s an uphill battle for the defense.
“The Supreme Court is hesitant to undo a jury’s verdict unless the defense is able to prove what was left out, or what was allowed in, would have altered the outcome,” Panitch said.
While the defense was looking forward on Monday, the prosecution was asked to look back. Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds defended his decision not to seek the death penalty for Harris, saying there weren’t enough “aggravating factors … no additional victims, or anything of that nature.”
“Second, in all candor, this was an unusual case,” he said, alluding to the fact that a malice murder charge had never before been sought in Georgia in a case where a child had been left in a hot car. “Although we felt very strongly about it, you still don’t know what a jury will do.”
The uniqueness of the Harris case extended into Monday’s hearing. There was, for instance, no victim’s impact statement, as Harris’ former wife, Leanna Taylor, testified that she didn’t believe her son was intentionally murdered.
Staley Clark held no such reservations.
“Mr. Harris, I went back and reviewed and thought about your statement to the police and your statement to your wife when you were taken into custody,” the judge said. “And it stood out to me in both of those you took the occasion to express your wish that you will be an advocate so that people would never do this again to their children. And I would say, perhaps not in the way that you intended, that you in fact have accomplished that goal.”
Harris will now be transferred from the Cobb jail to Jackson State Prison, where corrections officials will determine where he will serve out his sentence.