Georgia’s Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned a father’s conviction for murder and other charges, nearly six years after he was found guilty of knowingly leaving his little son to die in a hot car.
The father, Justin Ross Harris, had been convicted of malicious homicide and other charges in 2016 and was sentenced to life without probation after his trial was moved from Cobb County, near Atlanta, to Glynn County in southeastern Georgia, amid intense publicity.
Georgia’s Supreme Court ruled that extensive evidence of Mr Harris’s sexual activities presented during the trial was “extremely and unfairly harmful” and could have influenced the jury’s decision to convict him of intentionally causing the death of his son, Cooper. , who was 22 years old. months old.
Prosecutors had presented the evidence in part to support their theory that Mr Harris had deliberately left his son to die in the back of his car so he could “achieve his dream of being free to promote his sexual relationship with women. , he met online, “the court said.
“Because the correct admission that the appellant maliciously and knowingly left Cooper to die was far from overwhelming,” said the court“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 ruled in the 6-to-3 decision that prosecutors may choose to try Mr Harris again on the charges relating to Cooper’s death.
The Cobb County District Attorney’s Office, Flynn D. Broady Jr., said in a statement Wednesday: “Our office plans to file a reconsideration motion in this case.”
Maddox Kilgore, one of Mr. Harris’ lawyers said he was not surprised by the court’s decision and that Mr. Harris’ parents cried, prayed, and rejoiced.
“It’s a huge first step in correcting a wrong one,” he said, “and the wrong one was, of course, the blatantly unfair trial we had back in 2016.”
The court left judgments in place on three charges unrelated to Cooper’s death and focused instead on Mr. Harris’ electronic communication with a minor girl. Mr. Harris had been sentenced to 12 years in prison for these charges.
The basic facts about Cooper’s death were not in doubt: On the morning of June 18, 2014, Mr. Harris, a web developer at Home Depot, slammed the door on his Hyundai Tucson and went to work, leaving Cooper, who he is believed to have been put off in daycare as usual strapped into a rear-facing car seat in the back seat, the court said. After nearly seven hours in the hot car, Cooper died of hyperthermia.
Harris’ attorneys claimed he was “a loving father who had never abused Cooper and simply but tragically forgot that he had not delivered the child that morning,” the court said.
In November 2016, a jury convicted Mr. Harris of eight counts – five related to Cooper’s death and three related to Mr. Harris’ electronic communications with the minor girl.
During the trial, prosecutors presented extensive evidence to Mr. Harris’ extramarital affair in support of the charges.
Jury heard several days of testimony from a dozen witnesses about Mr. Harris’ sexual activities, saw hundreds of lewd and sometimes illegal sexual messages he exchanged with young women and girls, and got nine pictures of his erect penis, ensuring that the jury “did not miss the point that he was a repulsive person,” the court said.
The evidence “convincingly proved” that Mr. Harris was “a philander, a pervert and even a sexual predator,” the court said.
But the evidence did “little, if anything,” to answer the key question of why Mr Harris had walked away from Cooper in the car that morning, the court ruled.
Instead, the evidence probably led the jury to conclude that Mr. Harris was “the kind of man who would engage in other morally repulsive behaviors (like letting his child die painfully in a hot car) and who deserved punishment, even if the jurors was not convinced beyond any reasonable doubt that he purposefully killed Cooper, ‘the court ruled.
The court said some of the evidence was properly admissible to establish the prosecution’s motive theory and that it was “legal enough” to support Mr Harris’ convictions for the crimes against Cooper. But the district court should have ruled out much of it, “because it was unnecessarily cumulative and harmful,” the verdict states.
The extensive evidence indicating that Mr Harris had committed sexual crimes against minors was likely to have a “significant” smear effect, forcing him to continue on an unfair disadvantage as he defended himself against the allegations that he had left Cooper in the car to die, the court said.
The court ruled that the trial court was also wrong in rejecting Mr Harris’ proposal to separate the charges involving Cooper from those involving his communication with the minor girl.
Judge Mary Staley Clark of the Superior Court, who presided over the trial in 2016, announced his retirement this year and is now a senior judge in the Supreme Court, according to Christopher Hansard, the court administrator.
In an email, Mr. Hansard that Judge Clark “will not be able to comment on that case as it is still ongoing.”