The Supreme Court of Georgia has thrown out the 2016 murder conviction of Justin Ross Harris, whose infant 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 wrongfully used evidence of Harris’ multiple extramarital affairs at trial, claiming he deliberately killed his son Cooper Harris to escape a failed marriage.
Several sex offense convictions stemming from an affair with a minor, meanwhile, were upheld by the court. Harris was serving a life sentence and may now be retried on the murder charges.
A statement from Cobb District Attorney Flynn Broady said his office would file a motion for reconsideration in the decision.
Maddox Kilgore, who served as Harris' attorney at trial, said he wasn't surprised by the overturning of the conviction, "but that doesn't mean we're not delighted."
He added, "We're very happy with the court's opinion. We're happy for Ross Harris. Obviously, we're disappointed that the system broke down the way that it did, and that the judge permitted so much bad character evidence to come in."
Kilgore did not know if attorney Mitch Durham, who led the appeal process, had spoken with Harris yet, but said, "it's a joyous day in Harris household, I can tell you that."
Harris’ case captured national attention after he was first charged with murder in 2014. Harris, 33 at the time, left his home on a June morning with the stated intent of dropping his 22-month-old son at daycare. The two visited a Chick-fil-A together for breakfast, but instead of going to the daycare, Harris drove to work at Home Depot’s Vinings headquarters.
While his father worked inside, Cooper Harris was left in the car’s backseat for seven hours, as temperatures climbed into the 90s. When Justin Ross Harris left work to see a movie with friends, he discovered his son dead of hyperthermia (overheating) in the car seat.
Harris told police the death had been purely accidental. Prosecutors, however, argued he felt trapped in his marriage by his son’s existence, and had killed him to secure a divorce and freely pursue his 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 conviction comes more than a year after Cobb Superior Court Judge Mary Staley Clark declined to grant Harris a new trial. Staley Clark presided over the original 2016 trial.
Chief Justice David Nahmias, who authored the 134-page majority opinion, had already given indications he took issue with the state’s line of argument. When the court heard Harris’ case in January, he took prosecutors to task for deluging jurors with “irrelevant” information about the lewd messages and photos Harris sent to other women.
In one case Nahmias found “highly prejudicial,” prosecutors enlarged nine photos of Harris’ genitals he had sent to women and introduced those as separate exhibits.
The state, Nahmias wrote in his decision, “convincingly demonstrated that (Harris) was a philanderer, a pervert, and even a sexual predator. This evidence did little if anything to answer the key question of Appellant’s intent when he walked away from Cooper.”
As Kilgore put it, "Prior to trial and during trial, we objected to the admission of evidence which was clearly improper, and the Court recognized that we were absolutely correct," adding that Staley Clark had wrongly allowed the state to advance its "cockamamie theory" for Harris' motive.
Nahmias further sided with Harris’ argument that the sex offenses and the murder case should have been tried separately, and that conflating the counts in a single trial had unjustly prejudiced the jury.
Three of the Supreme Court’s nine justices signed onto an opinion from Justice Charlie Bethel arguing the introduction of the affair-related evidence was legitimate.
“In my view, the extraordinary task of proving the nature and allegedly limitless extent of (Harris’) desires and the level of depravity asserted by the State gave the trial court the discretion to admit a detailed and wide-ranging body of evidence concerning those issues,” Bethel wrote.
Georgia Bureau of Investigation Director Vic Reynolds, who served as Cobb District Attorney when the case was tried, told the MDJ Wednesday, “I have a great deal of respect for the Georgia Supreme Court, but I disagree with their opinion … I think they got it wrong.”