Justin Ross Harris murder sentence overturned by high court

June 23—The Georgian Supreme Court has overturned the 2016 murder conviction of Justin Ross Harris, whose 22-month-old son died two years earlier after being left in a hot car.

In a 6-3 vote, the court sided with Harris and his attorney’s argument that prosecutors wrongly used evidence of Harris’ multiple infidelity in court, claiming he purposely killed his son Cooper Harris to escape a failed marriage.

Several sex offense penalties stemming from extramarital affairs with minors, meanwhile, were upheld by the court. Harris is serving a life sentence and may now stand trial again on murder charges.

A statement from Cobb District Attorney Flynn Broady said his office would file a motion for reconsideration of the decision.

Maddox Kilgore, who served as Harris’ attorney at the trial, said he wasn’t surprised by the annulment of the sentence, “but that doesn’t mean we’re not happy.”

He added, “We are very pleased with the court’s opinion. We are pleased for Ross Harris. Obviously, we are disappointed that the system is broken in such a way, and that the judge allowed so much evidence of bad character to come in.”

Kilgore did not know if attorney Mitch Durham, who is leading the appeals process, had spoken to Harris Wednesday, but said, “it’s been an exciting day at the Harris household, I can tell you that.”

Harris’ case drew national attention after he was first charged with murder in 2014. Harris, 33 at the time, left his home one June morning with the intent to drop his toddler son into daycare. The two visit Chick-fil-A together for breakfast, but instead of going to daycare, Harris goes to work at Home Depot’s Vinings headquarters.

While his father worked inside, Cooper Harris was left in the backseat of the car for seven hours, as temperatures rose into the 90s. When Justin Ross Harris left work to watch a movie with his friends, he found his son dead of hyperthermia (heat), still strapped to the car seat.

Harris told police the death was purely an accident. Prosecutors, however, argued she felt trapped in her marriage with her son’s whereabouts, and had killed him to secure a divorce and freely pursue his extramarital affairs with other women.

Harris was convicted in 2016 after a closely watched and widely publicized trial, receiving a life sentence for murder and 12 years for exchanging explicit messages with an underage girl.

The high court’s decision to overturn the murder sentence comes more than a year after Cobb Superior Court Judge Mary Staley Clark refused to grant Harris a new trial. Staley Clark presided over the trial in early 2016.

Chief Justice David Nahmias, who wrote a 134-page majority opinion, has indicated that he has issues with the state’s line of argument. When the court heard Harris’ case in January, he took prosecutors on duty to overwhelm the jury with “irrelevant” information about obscene messages and photos Harris sent to other women.

In one case Nahmias found “very detrimental,” prosecutors enlarged nine photographs of Harris’ genitals that he sent to women and presented them as separate pieces of evidence.

The State, Nahmias wrote in its ruling, “conclusively demonstrated that (Harris) was a philanderer, a pervert, and even a sexual predator. This evidence does little to answer the key questions of Petitioner’s intent when he left Cooper.”

As Kilgore put it, “Prior to the trial and during the trial, we objected to the admission of clearly imprecise evidence, and the Court acknowledged that we were completely correct,” adding that Judge Staley Clark had wrongly allowed the state to advance the “cockamamie theory” for a motive. Harris.

Nahmias further sided with Harris’ argument that sex offenses and homicide cases should be tried separately, and that combining the numbers in one trial unfairly disadvantaged the jury.

Three of the nine Supreme Court justices signed Judge Charlie Bethel’s opinion on the grounds that the introduction of evidence related to the affair was lawful.

“In my view, the extraordinary task of proving the nature and extent of (Harris’) alleged unlimited will and the degree of depravity declared by the State affords courts the latitude to admit to a detailed and extensive body of evidence concerning this matter,” Bethel wrote.

Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vic Reynolds, who served as Cobb’s district attorney when the case was heard, told MDJ Wednesday, “I have great respect for the Georgia Supreme Court, but I don’t agree with their opinion … I think they misunderstood.”

Acworth Police Chief Jesse Evans, who is also prosecuting the case, said: “While we respect the Supreme Court, we strongly disagree with the majority decision, as do the three judges who differed.

“As most courts noted, ‘the evidence … is legally sufficient for a rational jury to conclude that (Harris) ruthlessly left Cooper to die.’ We agree. We believe that the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office will continue to seek justice for Cooper.”

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