BRUNSWICK — Nearly seven hours after Justin Ross Harris closed the door of his SUV and reported to work at Home Depot on June 18, 2014, he got back in the car and drove to a nearby theater to see “22 Jump Street.”
It would be a few miles, according to him, before Harris would notice his son’s lifeless body still strapped into the rear-facing car seat, which sat in the middle of the back seat. The prosecution in Harris’s murder trial charges that Harris knew all along that Cooper, 22 months, was there because he intended to kill the little boy.
On Wednesday prosecutors continued laying the foundations of the case they claim will prove those charges by showing that Harris should have seen, and smelled, what had happened to his son long before he claims.
First, two police officers testified that there was a distinct smell of death about Cooper Harris and inside the car in which he died — an odor that Ross Harris couldn’t have missed, they say, when he got in his car that afternoon to go to the movies. Second, testimony by one of the officers implied strongly that Harris could not have failed to see his son in the car.
Cooper’s car seat “was plainly visible from the driver’s door when I was looking in,” Cobb Police Capt. James Ferrell testified Wednesday in the hot car death trial, which resumed after a delay forced by Hurricane Matthew.
Former crime scene investigator Carey Grimstead, now a Cobb detective, testified only 3½ inches separated the top of Cooper’s car seat, where the toddler’s head would have been resting, to the top of the driver’s seat.
And, the prosecution has insisted, Harris should’ve smelled what Ferrell and Grimstead described as the unmistakable odor of death.
Grimstead said he detected the “sickly” stench when he processed the car more than six hours after Harris pulled into Akers Mill. Ferrell, then a lieutenant, testified he noticed the smell earlier that day.
“Once you’ve smelled it … you know what it is,” Grimstead testified. “It’s very difficult to explain that smell to someone who’d never smelled it before.”
The state has hammered away at the smell inside the car since opening statements last week. They want jurors to believe Harris ignored it because he knew Cooper was already dead.
Last week, crime scene technician Brad Shumpert testified the smell was “noticeable,” describing Cooper’s “hot, musty, urine-soaked diaper.”
But other witnesses who were in close proximity to the car, and Cooper’s body, said they detected no odor. And neither Grimstead nor Ferrell mentioned the stench in their initial reports from the crime scene. It would be up to a year before either noted the smell in supplemental reports. Shumpert never did.
“To me, it was unremarkable,” said Grimstead, who’d been to numerous death scenes, said under cross-examination. “To somebody who’s never smelled it before, it’d be very remarkable.”
Smells usually aren’t documented, he testified, because decomposition is expected.
Earlier Wednesday, jurors saw video captures of Cooper’s final meal, at a Vinings Chick-fil-A less than a mile from the Home Depot offices where Harris worked. In the video, Ross Harris orders breakfast at the front counter while holding Cooper. It’s one of the few times the public has seen Harris in what seems to be an ordinary moment. It’s also one of the few times the jury will see video of Cooper while he was still alive.
The restaurant was the last stop before Harris parked his car, leaving Cooper behind.
“I just remember Cooper smiling,” said Chris Redmon, the Vinings Chick-fil-A’s general manager on June 18, 2014, the day Harris’ only child died. “He seemed like a happy kid.”
Redmon testified he recognized Harris, estimating he had seen him in the restaurant a dozen times. That morning was the first time he had seen him with Cooper, he said.
In its opening statement, the defense said Harris usually grabbed breakfast at Chick-fil-A after dropping his son off at a nearby daycare facility.
Redmon said he observed Harris and his son leaving the restaurant.
“I don’t remember (Cooper) sleeping,” Redmon testified.
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