A Georgia father was charged with murder for leaving his toddler in a hot car. The state Supreme Court just overturned that ruling. Here's how we got here
By Amir Vera, CNN
It's been eight years since Cooper Harris, a 22-month-old, died in a sweltering hot car.
Since then, the twists and turns in the case surrounding Cooper's father, Justin Ross Harris, who left the toddler in the car for seven hours, have garnered national attention.
It was also revealed that Harris was sexting multiple women -- some of whom were underage at the time -- while his son was trapped in the vehicle, according to testimony from an investigator.
On June 22, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned his murder conviction in a 6-3 vote, saying evidence submitted by prosecutors of Harris' extramarital sexual relationships, which the state portrayed as the motivation behind his decision to kill his son, had unfair prejudicial impact on the jury.
So how exactly did the case end up here?
Summer 2014: Toddler dies and explicit messages surface
On June 18, 2014, Harris strapped Cooper into his rear-facing car seat and drove from his family's home to a nearby Chick-fil-A.
Instead of dropping his son off at day care afterward, he went to work at Home Depot, where he was a web designer. He parked and went inside, leaving Cooper strapped in the car for the next seven hours.
Harris stopped by the car early that afternoon, purportedly to put away some light bulbs he had purchased. But it wasn't until that afternoon, while he was driving to a nearby movie theater, that Harris claimed to notice his son was still in the car. He pulled into a shopping center parking lot, pulling the child's body from the SUV.
Records show that the mercury topped 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 a police officer on the scene who asked him to get off 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 cruelty. His charges initially triggered a wave of sympathy and a vigorous debate over whether the heartbroken father should be punished. That is, until information on Harris' electronic devices revealed a different side of the father.
Investigators seized computers from his office, finding that he searched for information about "child deaths inside vehicles and what temperature it needs to be for that to occur," according to a sworn statement in the search warrant from a police officer.
"Justin stated that he was fearful that this could happen," the warrant read.
Investigators also found Harris went by a different name on social media sites and was messaging multiple women -- some underage -- while his son was dying in the car. Some of the messages were explicit, Stoddard said, and included nude images.
By September 2014, Harris was indicted by a grand jury on eight counts, including malice 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 felony (sexual exploitation of a minor) and two counts of dissemination of harmful material to minors.
Prosecutors decided in 2015 not to seek the death penalty.
Toddler's mother asks for privacy in aftermath
At the time, Harris had been married to Leanna Harris. The two wed in May 2006.
She was never charged in connection with her son's death.
Leanna Harris said during the toddler's funeral in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that summer that she was not angry with her then-husband.
"Am I angry with 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 daddy and leader for our household. Cooper meant the world to him."
For the most part, Harris stood by her husband's side throughout the entire eight years, which caught the attention of police in 2014.
Police said Harris behaved strangely in the days before and moments after the death of her son.
For example, one detective testified that she asked her husband, "Did you say too much?" in a police interview room after he was arrested, and that she also insisted to employees at her son's day care that "Ross must have left him in the car," when they told her Cooper had not been dropped off that morning. Police also said both parents conducted Internet searches about how hot a car needed to be to kill a child.
Harris, through her attorney, would ultimately ask for privacy.
"She asks that she be allowed to grieve in private without reporters calling, following or watching her home. Since his death, she has been unable to have that time of mourning that every bereaved parent needs. Please allow her the dignity to mourn her son in private," Harris' attorney, Lawrence Zimmerman, wrote in a 2014 statement.
Adding to Harris' odd behavior was the fact that she took and passed a polygraph test in January 2015. Zimmerman did not provide the full test questions and answers but gave reporters a select few.
The only questions Zimmerman provided were:
- Prior to 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 that he was going to leave your son in that vehicle?
She answered no to those three questions and the results showed there was no deception in her answers, Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman said at the time his client was "concerned the district attorney's office may try to level a charge against her."
Harris ultimately filed for divorce from her husband in February 2016. She did not cite a specific reason for her desire to divorce her husband, saying only that the "marriage is irretrievably broken."
Lead up to trial includes more charges and change of venue
It was October 2015 when the arguments around Justin Ross Harris' sexting minors began.
The prosecution said the sexting-related charges help establish motive -- Harris was not happy at home and wanted to be free of his responsibilities of marriage and fatherhood. Harris' defense attorney, H. Maddox Kilgore, rebutted by saying he didn't believe the charges that Harris sent minors sexually explicit material had anything to do with the allegations that he intentionally killed his son.
A judge ruled not to separate the trials of the murder and sexting charges.
In March 2016, Harris was again indicted, this time on eight charges total in relation to his messaging with minors. He was charged with two counts of sexual exploitation of children and six counts of dissemination of harmful materials to minors.
The revelations about Harris' activities with minors combined with the death of his son created a media circus -- so much so that Judge Mary Staley granted a change in venue for the trial.
"(Harris) has carried the burden to make a substantive showing of a likelihood that prejudice exists because of extensive publicity, so it would not be just to try the case in Cobb County," Staley said.
A month later, the coastal town of Brunswick, Georgia, was chosen as the new location of the trial.
Fall 2016: Trial begins, with toddler's mother as key witness
Harris' trial began in October 2016 and spanned almost five weeks.
Defense attorneys argued Harris was responsible for his son's death, but to allege he intentionally let the boy die in a sweltering SUV wasn't true.
"Responsible is not the same thing as criminal," defense attorney H. Maddox Kilgore said. "The evidence will show that Ross loved that little boy more than anything. Cooper's death was an accident. It was always an accident, and that is what he told the police over and over again."
Prosecutors argued evidence showed Harris had motive to kill his son. He and his wife were having intimacy issues, and his wife even recounted on stand that he struggled with pornography.
On top of that, the family also had financial issues. An investigator said Harris' wife "was complaining about (her husband's) sporadic purchasing or overcharging credit cards." The couple also had $2,000 and $25,000 life insurance policies on their son, according to the investigator.
Despite all of their issues, Leanna Harris -- now Leanna Taylor -- served as the 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 deliberated for 21 hours over four days. Jurors considered the testimony of 70 witnesses and 1,150 pieces of evidence. Harris was ultimately found guilty in November 2016 of three counts of murder and two counts of cruelty to children for Cooper's death as well as three counts relating to his electronic exchanges of lewd material with two underage girls.
The next month, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Judge Mary Staley Clark also gave Harris a 20-year sentence on a conviction for first-degree cruelty to children and another 10 years for sexual exploitation of children. Harris also received a year each on two misdemeanor counts of dissemination of harmful material to minors, also related to his texts.
Summer 2022: Georgia Supreme Court overturns murder conviction
The Georgia Supreme Court's June 2022 opinion ruled that evidence submitted by prosecutors of Harris' extramarital sexual relationships had unfair prejudicial impact on the jury.
That evidence "did little if anything" to demonstrate Harris' intent when he left Cooper in the car, the opinion stated, "but it was likely to lead the jurors to conclude that Appellant 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."
As the evidence shown to prove Harris' intent "was far from overwhelming, we cannot say that it is highly probable that the erroneously admitted sexual evidence did not contribute to the jury's guilty verdicts," the court's opinion said.
The Cobb County District Attorney's Office plans to file a motion for the court to reconsider its ruling, the office said in a statement following the opinion.
Harris' other convictions related to the texts remain in place. He was sentenced to 12 years in all on those charges.
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