Next month, a Brunswick jury will be asked to decide whether a metro Atlanta father intentionally killed his son by leaving him in a sweltering car or whether the 22-month-old’s death was a tragic accident.
The June 18, 2014, incident has captivated metro Atlantans and parents across the nation who have thrashed out what led to the toddler’s death and what could have possessed Justin Ross Harris to forget his son for nearly eight hours.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporters have followed the case since Harris was arrested and charged with murder. Breakdown, an AJC podcast series, explores the circumstances of Cooper's death and offer listeners perspectives from national experts and individuals close to the case. Listen and download on iTunes here.
» Season 2, Episode 7: Harris trial moves to Georgia's Golden Isles
Here are five things to know about the hot car death trial in Brunswick, where jury selection begins on Sept. 12.
1. Who is Justin Ross Harris?
Harris was raised in the Tuscaloosa area and graduated from the University of Alabama. He accepted a job as a web developer with Home Depot in 2012 and moved to Marietta with his wife and their newborn son. Before his son's death, he had never been in trouble with the law. Harris has been held in the Cobb County Jail since the day his only child died. He and his wife, Leanna Harris, divorced in March ahead of the Cobb County trial jury selection.
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2. What is the hot car death case about?
Cobb County authorities say Harris left Cooper strapped into his car seat on a hot June day in 2014, leading to the child’s death in the super-heated vehicle. The police say Harris did it on purpose.
According to police, Harris left his son in a rear-facing car seat in the middle of the backseat of his SUV while he was at work at Home Depot. When he returned to the SUV at lunchtime, he opened the driver's side door, put something inside and went back inside to work. According to documents, Harris left work and was headed to meet friends about 4:20 p.m. when he said he realized his son was still in the car.
Harris was taken to Cobb police headquarters for questioning, and within about five hours was arrested and charged with felony murder and child cruelty. The autopsy conducted on the 22-month-old left inside an SUV for seven hours determined the manner of death was a homicide.
» Warrant: Cobb toddler’s dad researched child deaths inside vehicles
The state has charged Harris with malice murder, which means the killer intended to kill. But it has also charged him with two counts of felony murder, which is a death that occurs during the commission of a felony. A conviction on any of the murder charges would carry a life sentence, with 30 years to serve before possibility of parole.
3. Why did the trial move to Brunswick, Ga.?
The hot car death trial moved to the small coastal town after Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley agreed Harris wouldn't be able to get a fair trial in Cobb.
Staley granted a defense motion to change the venue of the hot-car murder trial when the defense complained that five qualified jurors were biased against their client.
The judge said that the media coverage has been “persistent, pervasive” and ultimately colored the prospective jurors opinions.
“We needed to move it outside the Atlanta media market that covered this case so extensively,” Cobb Superior Court Administrator Tom Charron said recently. “As a matter of fact, talking to the court officials down there, several of them had to think a minute before (they said), ‘Oh yeah, I think I heard something about that case.’”
» Mistake or murder? Trial to begin in Justin Ross Harris case
4. How will jury selection work for the trial in Brunswick?
On Monday, a second round of jury selection begins in Brunswick, where potential jurors are expected to be more open-minded toward the former Home Depot web developer accused of intentionally locking his 22-month-old son inside a hot car to die.
Opening statements are scheduled for Oct. 3 but could possibly start sooner, depending on how fast a jury is selected.
» 7 keys to the Justin Ross Harris trial
5. Who are the main players in the case?
Key witness: Leanna Taylor was born and raised about an hour outside of Tuscaloosa and married Justin in 2006. She is still expected to be a key witness for the defense. Her attorney says Taylor — she now goes by her maiden name — remains convinced that her son's death was an accident. Read more here.
Lead defense attorney: Maddox Kilgore was once a prosecutor in the Cobb district attorney's office. He then prosecuted felony cases in the Cobb DA's office for six years before moving over to the defense bar in 2005. Read more here.
Cobb County District Attorney: The prosecution of Ross Harris stands as the biggest case of Vic Reynolds' brief tenure as Cobb's district attorney. Read more here.
Prosecutor: Chuck Boring is the senior assistant district attorney leading the prosecution team. Read more here.
Lead investigator: Phil Stoddard has been a key witness for the prosecution in multiple pretrial hearings and, because of that testimony, is also expected to emerge as a major component of the defense's case. Read more here.
Cobb Superior Court judge: Mary Staley Clark surprised observers when she granted a change of venue and will relocate to Glynn County along with court personnel for the duration of the trial. Read more here.
Follow the AJC's full coverage of Justin Ross Harris here.
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