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Justin Ross Harris was charged with murder for leaving his young child in a hot car. Georgia’s Supreme Court overturned just that decision. That’s how we got here

Written by Javed Iqbal

Since then, the twists and turns in the case of Cooper’s father, Justin Ross Harris, who left the toddler in the car for seven hours, have received national attention.

It was also revealed that Harris sexually assaulted several women – some of whom were minors at the time – while his son was trapped in the vehicle, according to a witness statement from an investigator.

Summer 2014: Toddlers die, and explicit messages pop up

On June 18, 2014, Harris Cooper strapped into his rear-facing car seat and drove from his family home to a nearby Chick-fil-A.

Instead of dropping off his son in daycare afterwards, he went to work at Home Depot, where he was a web designer. He parked and walked in, leaving Cooper strapped into the car for the next seven hours.

Harris stopped by the car early that afternoon, allegedly to put away some bulbs he had bought. But it was not until that afternoon, while driving to a nearby movie theater, that Harris claimed to notice that his son was still in the car. He pulled into a mall parking lot and pulled the child’s body from the SUV.

Records show that the mercury peaked at 92 degrees that day, and police say the temperature was 88 degrees when the boy was pronounced dead in a parking lot not far from his father’s workplace.

Harris never called 911 and said “f ** k you” to an on-site police officer who asked him to drop his phone, according to Detective Phillip Stoddard, the prosecution’s lead investigator.
After being arrested, Harris pleaded not guilty to charges of murder and second-degree child abuse. His accusations were initially triggered a wave of sympathy and a heated debate over whether the broken father should be punished. That is, until information about Harris’ electronic devices revealed another side of the father.
Investigators seized computers from his office and found that he sought information about “infant deaths inside vehicles and what temperature it must be for that to happen,” according to a sworn statement in the search warrant from a police officer.
Georgia Toddler Death: Who is Justin Ross Harris?

“Justin stated that he was afraid this could happen,” the ruling said.

Investigators also found that Harris went by a different name on social media and sent messages to several women – some minors – while his son was dying in the car. Some of the messages were explicit, Stoddard said, and included nude photos.

In September 2014, Harris was indicted by a grand jury on eight charges, including malicious murder and two counts of felony murder.

The other five charges against Harris included: first-degree cruelty to children, second-degree cruelty to children, criminal attempt to commit a crime (sexual exploitation of a minor) and two counts of spreading harmful material to minors.

This was decided by the prosecution in 2015 not to seek the death penalty.

The toddler’s mother asks for privacy in the wake

At the time, Harris had been married to Leanna Harris. The two married in May 2006.

She was never charged in connection with her son’s death.

Mother of a small child who died in car 'absolutely not' angry at the man
Leanna Harris said during the toddler’s funeral in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that summer she was not angry with her then husband.

“Am I mad at Ross?” she said at the time. “Absolutely not. It has never crossed my mind. Ross is and was and will be, if we have more children, a wonderful father. Ross is a wonderful father and leader of our household. Cooper meant the world to him.”

For the most part, Harris stood by her husband’s side for a full eight years, capturing police attention in 2014.

said police Harris behaved strangely in the days before and moments after her son’s death.

For example, a detective testified that she asked her husband, “Did you say too much?” in a police interrogation room after he was arrested, and that she also insisted to staff at her son’s daycare that “Ross must have left him in the car” when they told her that Cooper had not been put off that morning. Police also said both parents conducted internet searches on how hot a car should be to kill a child.

Lawyer: Leanna Harris, whose son died in a hot car in Georgia, passed the polygraph test

Harris, through his lawyer, would ultimately ask for privacy.

“She asks that she be allowed to mourn privately without journalists calling, following or keeping an eye on her home. Since his death, she has not been able to have the time of grief that all bereaved parents have. Give her the dignity to mourn her son privately, “Harris’ lawyer, Lawrence Zimmerman, wrote in a statement from 2014.
To add to Harris’ strange behavior was that she took and passed a polygraph test in January 2015. Zimmerman did not provide the full test questions and answers, but gave the journalists a select few.

The only questions Zimmerman asked were:

  • Before June 18, did you know that your husband would leave your son in that vehicle?
  • Did you plan or arrange with your husband to leave your son in that vehicle?
  • Did your husband tell you he would leave your son in that vehicle?

She answered no to the three questions and the results showed there was no deception in her answer, Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said at the time his client was “concerned that the district attorney’s office may try to bring an indictment against her.”

Harris in the end filed for divorce from her husband in February 2016. She did not mention a specific reason for her desire to divorce her husband and only said that “the marriage is irrevocably broken.”

Introduction to the trial period includes additional fees and change of venue

It was October 2015 when the quarrels around Justin Ross Harris’ sexting minors began.

Prosecutors say sexting-related charges help determine the motive – Harris was not happy at home and wanted to be free from his responsibilities such as marriage and paternity. Harris’ defense attorney, H. Maddox Kilgore, denied, saying he did not believe the allegations that Harris sent sexually explicit material to minors had anything to do with the allegations that he intentionally killed his son.

A judge ruled not to separate the experiments of the charges of murder and sexting.
In March 2016 Harris was charged again, this time on a total of eight charges in relation to his messages with minors. He was charged with two counts of sexual exploitation of children and six counts of spreading harmful material to minors.
The judge will not separate murder, and sexting of charges in the Georgia hot car trial
The revelations about Harris’ activities with minors combined with his son’s death created a media circus – so much so that Judge Mary Staley admitted a change of venue to the trial.

“(Harris) has borne the burden of presenting a real demonstration of the likelihood of prejudice due to extensive publicity, so it would not be just trying the case in Cobb County,” Staley said.

A month later, the coastal town of Brunswick, Georgiawas chosen as the new site for the experiment.

Autumn 2016: The trial begins, with the toddler’s mother as the key witness

Harris’ trial began in October 2016 and spanned nearly five weeks.

Defense attorneys claimed Harris was responsible for his son’s death, but to claim that he deliberately let the boy die in a suffocating SUV was not true.

“Responsible is not the same as criminal,” defense attorney H. Maddox Kilgore said. “The evidence will show that Ross loved the little boy more than anything else. Cooper’s death was an accident. It was always an accident, and that was what he told police over and over again.”

Prosecutors claimed evidence showed Harris had a motive for killing his son. He and his wife had problems with intimacy, and his wife even told the booth that he was struggling with pornography.

Day by day: Key moments from the Justin Ross Harris process
On top of that, the family had too economic issues. An investigator said Harris’ wife “complained about (her husband’s) occasional purchase or overcharge of credit cards.” The couple also had $ 2,000 and $ 25,000 life insurance on their son, according to the investigator.

Despite all their problems, Leanna Harris – now Leanna Taylor – served as a key witness for the defense. Taylor described Harris as a “very involved” parent who loved their son. In her mind, she said, the only possible explanation behind her son’s death was that Harris “forgot” Cooper and accidentally left him in the car.

The Glynn County jury of six men and six women discussed for 21 hours over four days. Juries dealt with testimony from 70 witnesses and 1,150 pieces of evidence. Harris was eventually found guilty in November 2016 of three counts of murder and two counts of child cruelty for Cooper’s death, as well as three counts relating to his electronic exchanges of adulterous material with two underage girls.
The next month, he was sentenced to life in prison without probation. Judge Mary Staley Clark also gave Harris a 20-year sentence for first-degree cruelty to children and a further 10 years for child sexual exploitation. Harris also received one year each on two misdemeanors for distributing harmful material to minors, also related to his texts.

Summer 2022: Georgia’s Supreme Court overturned murder

The Georgia 2022 Supreme Court ruling stated that evidence presented by prosecutors for Harris’ extramarital sex had an unfair detrimental effect on the jury.

Georgia's Supreme Court overthrows Justin Ross Harris' murder in his son's death by car

This evidence “did little about something” to demonstrate Harris’ intent when he left Cooper in the car, the statement said, “but it would probably lead jurors to conclude that the appellant was the kind of man who would engage in other morally repulsive behaviors (such as leaving his child to die painfully in a hot car) and who deserved punishment. “

Since the evidence shown to prove Harris’ intent “was far from overwhelming, we can not say that it is highly probable that the erroneously admitted sexual evidence did not contribute to the jury’s guilty verdicts,” the court’s statement reads.

The Cobb County District Attorney’s Office plans to file a motion with the court to reconsider its decision, the office said in a statement following the statement.

Harris’ other beliefs related to the texts remain in place. He was sentenced to a total of 12 years for these charges.

CNN’s Mayra Cuevas, Tina Burnside, Dakin Andone, Faith Karimi, Michael Pearson, Ralph Ellis, Carma Hassan, Vivian Kuo, Marlena Baldacci, Nick Valencia, Ashley Fantz, Devon Sayers, and Eliott C. McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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Javed Iqbal

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