Ross Harris wipes away tears during his attorney’s opening statement Tuesday in Harris’s murder trial in Brunswick. (Screen capture from WSB-TV video)
Photo: Halicks, Richard (CMG-Atlanta)
Photo: Halicks, Richard (CMG-Atlanta)

Ross Harris a victim of police lies and distortions, his lawyer claims

After enduring more than two years of largely unchallenged, unthinkable allegations leveled against his client, Ross Harris’ lead attorney went on offense Tuesday, making it clear he was putting Cobb County police on trial in the hot-car murder case.

In an opening statement filled with emotion — much of it coming from Harris, live and on tape — defense lawyer Maddox Kilgore challenged law enforcement’s narrative point by point while acknowledging the former Home Depot web developer’s moral failings.

“Ross’s sex life, no matter how perverse and nasty and wrong … doesn’t have a thing to do with the fact he forgot that little boy,” he said.

Harris is charged with intentionally leaving his 22-month-old-son Cooper inside his hot SUV to die.

“He’s earned every bit of shame coming his way,” Kilgore said. Harris repeatedly wiped tears from his eyes as his lawyer spoke.

But, Kilgore said, that doesn’t make Harris a killer.

Kilgore’s statement came the day after prosecutor Chuck Boring, in his opening remarks, said the evidence would clearly show that Harris intentionally killed his son. He accused Harris of leading a double life, deceiving friends and family who believed he was a loving father and husband. The defense countered that depiction, saying Harris had confessed his struggles with “sexual sins” to close friends and even his Sunday School class.

The strongest blows were aimed at lead detective Phil Stoddard. Kilgore singled out the veteran officer, sitting in the front row behind the prosecutor’s table, accusing him of supplying false testimony about Harris’ actions and demeanor on the day Cooper died.

On Stoddard’s testimony that Harris shed “no tears” and displayed “no real emotion”: “That’s just not true,” Kilgore said, showing dashboard cam footage of Harris wailing in the parking lot of Akers Mill Square just moments after he said he found Cooper’s lifeless body still strapped in his car seat.

“He wept bitterly outside the view of police officers,” Kilgore said. With police, he was more stoic and generally cooperative: “If there was a time to act and perform and put on a show for police, that was the time to do it,” Kilgore said.

But it wasn’t just law enforcement who found Harris’ behavior odd.

James Hawkins, a lighting installer, testified Tuesday that he heard Harris’ car come screeching into the parking lot at Akers Mill Square and then saw the defendant “fumbling around” with his son’s body.

“It wasn’t right, whatever he was doing,” Hawkins said of what appeared to be Harris’s efforts to administer CPR. “So I moved him away and started doing CPR.”

His voice breaking, he described Cooper was “pale yellow,” “his tongue was sticking out” and “his hands were clenched.”

During his opening on Monday, Boring said officers smelled a “stench” in Harris’ SUV hours later. But on Tuesday witness Anthony Pantano, who said he helped Harris remove Cooper from the car, said he did not smell anything.

After that, Superior Court Judge Mary Staley Clark allowed the prosecutor to ask an unusual follow-up: Is it possible there was a smell but you didn’t notice? Yes, Pantano answered.

In his opening statement, Kilgore tackled assumptions made about the case that were later proven wrong. He noted that police also found the behavior of Harris’ then-wife, Leanna, suspicious because she appeared emotionless after learning of her son’s death.

“People jumped to conclusions,” Kilgore said. “They were wrong. Very wrong.”

Video of Ross and Leanna’s meeting at the police station presented a different picture than the one painted by Stoddard, who testified that the couple appeared to be conspiring, with Leanna asking Harris, “Did you say too much?”

But in a segment of the video shown by the defense, Harris can be seen weeping, embracing his wife as she tries to reassure him.

Stoddard’s assertion that Harris had Googled the phrase “how long it takes a dog to die in a hot car” was also false, Kilgore said. Searches for “child death” or “hot car” were never conducted by his client, he said.

“They knew he didn’t do it but swore under oath that he did,” Kilgore said. “It was made up by the Cobb police department.”

While owning up to Harris’ infidelities and lurid proclivities, Kilgore said the defendant’s serial promiscuity was not a motive for murder.

“There’s one person in this world who has reason to hate Ross Harris,” Kilgore said, once again referencing his client’s former wife, Leanna, who divorced Harris earlier this year. “He cheated on her. He humiliated her. He’s responsible for the death of her little boy.”

“She’s going to tell you, ‘Ross Harris loved that little boy more than anything in the world,’” he said. “She’s going to tell you (Cobb police) got it wrong.”

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