COBB COUNTY, Ga. — The Supreme Court of Georgia has reversed the conviction in a high-profile hot car death from 2014.
Justin Ross Harris' conviction for murder and other crimes related to the death of his toddler son, Cooper, was reversed because the jury “heard and saw an extensive amount of improperly admitted evidence.”
The parts of his conviction related to sex crimes against a 16-year-old girl - which were used at trial as evidence against him in support of the murder charge - were upheld and he will remain in prison.
The Georgia Supreme Court, however, ruled that the evidence to support the sex crimes convictions were not relevant to the murder charge and should not have been presented in the same trial.
Cooper, who was 22 months old at the time of his death, died of hyperthermia on June 18, 2014, after Harris left him strapped into a rear-facing car seat in the back of his SUV. It was parked outside his office building.
A Cobb County grand jury later indicted Harris for five crimes related to Cooper’s death.
His trial was relocated to Glynn County where a jury found him guilty of all charges in November 2016. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.
Harris was also charged with three sex crimes against a 16-year-old girl, that were alleged to have occurred between March and June 2014. He was sentenced to 12 years for those - the Supreme Court did not overturn the convictions on that matter.
The Supreme Court said the basic facts of the murder case in Cooper's death were "undisputed" - it was Harris' fault - but the issue at trial was "what was going through Harris' mind when he left the vehicle and walked into work that morning."
“The State’s theory was that Appellant [Harris] intentionally and maliciously abandoned his child to die a slow and painful death trapped in the summer heat, so that Appellant could achieve his dream of being free to further his sexual relationships with women he met online. The defense theory was that Appellant was a loving father who had never mistreated Cooper and simply but tragically forgot that he had not dropped off the child on that particular morning. During Appellant’s trial, substantial evidence was presented to support both theories,” Chief Justice Nahmias writes. “But the State also presented a substantial amount of evidence to lead the jury to answer a different and more legally problematic question: what kind of man is Appellant?”
The Supreme Court's majority opinion said there was no relevant connection between the evidence that Harris was a bad person and the question of whether he intentionally murdered his son.
The Court found that a "large amount of the evidence of... sexual activities had minimal probative value in showing his alleged motive (to kill Cooper) and was needlessly cumulative or highly prejudicial."
Outside of some communications presented in court from the day Cooper died, which "offered insight into Harris' activities and state of mind shortly before leaving Cooper in the SUV and while the child was dying," most of the other evidence shown in court "did not speak directly to Harris' possible motivation to kill his son as much as it demonstrated his 'repugnant character.'"
“[T]he State convincingly demonstrated that Appellant was a philanderer, a pervert, and even a sexual predator,” Chief Justice Nahmias wrote in the opinion. “This evidence did little if anything to answer the key question of Appellant’s intent when he walked away from Cooper, 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, even if the jurors were not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that he purposefully killed Cooper."
The evidence, the Court explained, that Harris may have had a "sex-crazed double life" was not "relevant to show his motive for murdering Cooper."
The evidence for that claim - that Harris intentionally left Cooper to die - was "far from overwhelming."
The Court found the trial court "abused its discretion" by not severing the murder case from the case related to sexual communications with a minor.
"We cannot say that it is highly probable that the erroneously admitted sexual evidence did not contribute to the jury’s guilty verdicts," the opinion concludes.
In a statement to 11Alive, the Cobb County District Attorney's office said they plan to file a motion for reconsideration in the case.
This is a developing story. Check back often for new information.
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