Georgia’s Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned a father’s conviction on murder and other charges, nearly six years after he was found guilty of deliberately leaving his infant son to die in a hot car .
The father, Justin Ross Harris, was convicted of malicious murder and other charges in 2016 and sentenced to life without parole after his trial was moved from Cobb County, near Atlanta, to New York. Glynn County in southeastern Georgia amid intense publicity.
The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled that extensive evidence of Mr Harris’ sexual activities presented at trial was ‘extremely and unfairly prejudicial’ and could have affected the jury’s decision to convict him of intentionally causing his son’s death , Cooper, who was 22 years old. month.
Prosecutors had presented the evidence in part to support their theory that Mr Harris had intentionally left his son to die in the back of his car so that he “could fulfill his dream of being free to pursue his sexual relationship with women he met online,” the court said.
“Because the properly admitted evidence that the appellant intentionally and maliciously left Cooper to die was far from overwhelming,” the court said, “we cannot say that it is highly probable that the sexual evidence admitted to wrong did not contribute to the jury’s guilty verdicts”.
The court ruled in the 6-to-3 decision that prosecutors could choose to retry Mr. Harris on charges related to Cooper’s death.
Cobb County District Attorney Flynn D. Broady Jr.’s office said in a statement Wednesday, “Our office plans to file a motion for reconsideration in this matter.”
Maddox Kilgore, one of Mr Harris’ lawyers, said he was not surprised by the court’s decision and Mr Harris’ parents were crying, praying and rejoicing.
“It’s a huge first step in righting a wrong,” he said, “and that wrong, of course, was the grossly unfair trial we had in 2016.”
The court left in place convictions on three counts that were unrelated to Cooper’s death and instead focused on Mr Harris’ electronic communications with an underage girl. Mr. Harris had been sentenced to 12 years in prison on these charges.
The basic facts of Cooper’s death were undisputed: On the morning of June 18, 2014, Mr. Harris, a web developer at Home Depot, closed the door of his Hyundai Tucson and walked into work, leaving Cooper, that he was supposed to have dropped off at daycare, as usual, strapped into a rear-facing car seat in the back seat, the court heard. After nearly seven hours in the hot car, Cooper died of hyperthermia.
Lawyers for Mr Harris argued he was ‘a loving father who had never abused Cooper and had simply but tragically forgotten that he had not dropped the child off that morning’, the court said. court.
In November 2016, a jury found Mr Harris guilty of eight counts – five relating to Cooper’s death and three relating to Mr Harris’ electronic communications with the underage daughter.
During the trial, prosecutors presented ample evidence of Mr. Harris’ extramarital sex to support the charges.
Jurors over several days heard testimony from a dozen witnesses about Mr. Harris’s sexual activities, saw hundreds of obscene and sometimes illegal sexual messages he exchanged with young women and girls, and received nine photos of his erect penis that ensured the jury “did not miss the fact that he was a disgusting person,” the court heard.
The evidence “convincingly demonstrated” that Mr Harris was “a womanizer, a pervert and even a sexual predator”, the court heard.
But the evidence did ‘little, if anything’, answer the key question of why Mr Harris drove away from Cooper in the car that morning, the court ruled.
Instead, the evidence likely led the jury to conclude that Mr Harris was “the kind of man who would engage in other morally repugnant behavior (like letting his child die painfully in a hot car) and who deserved to be punished, even though the jurors were not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that he deliberately killed Cooper,” the court heard.
The court said some of the evidence was properly admissible to establish the prosecution motive theory and was ‘legally sufficient’ to support Mr Harris’s convictions for the crimes against Cooper. But the trial court should have excluded much of it “because it was unnecessarily cumulative and prejudicial,” the ruling said.
The extensive evidence that Mr Harris had committed sex crimes against minors likely had a “substantial ‘defamatory’ effect” that forced him to proceed at an unfair disadvantage when defending himself against the charges that he left Cooper in the car to die, the court heard.
The court ruled that the trial court also erred in denying Mr Harris’ motion to sever the charges involving Cooper from those involving his communications with the underage girl.
Superior Court Justice Mary Staley Clark, who presided over the trial in 2016, announced her retirement this year and is now a senior Superior Court judge, according to Christopher Hansard, the court administrator.
In an email, Mr Hansard wrote that Judge Clark “will not be able to comment on this case as it is still ongoing”.