Georgia’s highest court on Wednesday overturned the murder and child cruelty convictions against a man who has been serving a life sentence for the 2014 hot-car death of his toddler son.
In a stunning move, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled 6-3 to reverse 41-year-old Justin Ross Harris’ convictions related to the death of his 22-month-old son, Cooper.
The court argued that the jury was presented with evidence that was “improperly admitted” and “extremely and unfairly prejudicial.”
Harris was found guilty in November 2016 on eight counts including malice murder. A judge sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole plus 32 years for other offenses — among them sexual crimes involving a 16-year-old girl.
The justices all agreed that there was sufficient evidence to support Harris’ convictions, but the 134-page majority opinion written by Chief Justice David Nahmias says that much of the evidence having to do with Harris’ extramarital affairs and sexting obsession should not have been admitted and may have improperly swayed the jury.
The ruling means that Harris is entitled to a new trial on the murder and child cruelty charges against him.
“We are very appreciative and grateful that we’ll have a new trial,” said Harris’ attorney, Mitch Durham.
The high court upheld Harris’ convictions on three sex crimes committed against the 16-year-old girl that Harris had not appealed. He received a total of 12 years in prison for those crimes and will remain behind bars.
The Cobb County District Attorney’s Office said in a statement that it plans to file a motion for reconsideration in the case.
Prosecutors argued that Harris was unhappy in his marriage and intentionally killed his son by leaving him in a hot car for seven hours in order to free himself.
To support this theory, they presented extensive evidence of Harris’ sexual activities, including exchanging graphic messages and photos with women and girls, and meeting some of them for sex.
Defense attorneys described him as a loving father and said the boy’s death was a tragic accident.
The court’s majority opinion said the jury “heard and saw an extensive amount of improperly admitted evidence.” It claimed that as prosecutors painted Harris as a man who “intentionally and maliciously” abandoned his child to die in the summer heat, they also “presented a substantial amount of evidence to lead the jury to answer a different and more legally problematic question: what kind of man is (Harris)?”
Harris, who moved from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to the Atlanta area for work in 2012, told police he forgot to drop his son off at day care on the morning of June 18, 2014, driving straight to his job as a web developer for Home Depot without remembering that Cooper was still in his car seat.
Cooper died after sitting for about seven hours in the back seat of the Hyundai Tucson SUV outside his father’s office in suburban Atlanta, where temperatures that day soared into the high 80s.
Nahmias wrote in the majority opinion that it was clear that Harris did leave his son in the back of his sweltering SUV, but it was up for debate whether he did it “intentionally and maliciously.”
While some of the evidence was appropriate to establish the prosecution’s theory of Harris’ motive, the trial court should have excluded much of it, including blown-up color photos of Harris’ genitals taken from his text exchanges, the justice argued.
The state “convincingly demonstrated that (Harris) was a philanderer, a pervert, and even a sexual predator,” Nahmias wrote. “This evidence did little if anything to answer the key question of (Harris’) intent when he walked away from Cooper, but it was likely to lead the jurors to conclude that (Harris) was the kind of man who would engage in other morally repulsive conduct (like leaving his child to die painfully in a hot car) and who deserved punishment, even if the jurors were not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that he purposefully killed Cooper.”
The evidence admitted was “far from overwhelming,” the opinion read. “We cannot say that it is highly probable that the erroneously admitted sexual evidence did not contribute to the jury’s guilty verdicts.”
With Post wires