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ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia’s highest court on Wednesday overturned the murder and child cruelty convictions against a man whose infant son died after leaving him in a hot car for hours, saying the jury had seen “extremely and unfairly prejudicial” evidence.
Justin Ross Harris, 41, was convicted in November 2016 of eight counts, including malicious murder in the death of his 22-month-old son, Cooper. A judge sentenced him to life without the possibility of parole and an additional 32 years in prison for other crimes.
All Georgia Supreme Court justices agreed there was enough evidence to support Harris’s convictions, but the 134-page majority opinion written by Chief Justice David Nahmias says much of the evidence related to Harris’ sexual activities should not have been admitted and may have improperly influenced the jury. The ruling means Harris is entitled to a new trial for murder and child cruelty against him.
The high court upheld Harris’s convictions for three sex crimes committed against a 16-year-old girl which Harris had not appealed. He received a total of 12 years in prison for these crimes.
The Cobb County District Attorney’s Office plans to file a motion for reconsideration in the case, according to an emailed statement. A lawyer for Harris did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Prosecutors argued that Harris was unhappy with his marriage and intentionally killed his son to free himself. To support this theory, they presented ample evidence of extramarital sexual activities he had engaged in, including exchanging sexually explicit messages and graphic photos with women and girls and meeting some of them. them for sex.
Defense lawyers described him as a doting father and said the boy’s death was a tragic accident.
The 6 to 3 majority opinion indicates that the jury “heard and saw a great deal of evidence incorrectly admitted”. He says that when prosecutors portrayed Harris as a man who “intentionally and maliciously” abandoned his child to die in the heat of summer, they also “presented a substantial amount of evidence to cause the jury to answer a different and more legally problematic question: kind of man is (Harris)?
Harris, who moved from Tuscaloosa, Alabama to the Atlanta area for work in 2012, told police he forgot to drop his son off at daycare on the morning of June 18, 2014, driving straight to his job as a web developer for Home Depot without remembering that Cooper was still in his car seat.
Cooper died after sitting for about seven hours in the back seat of the Hyundai Tucson SUV outside his father’s office in suburban Atlanta, where temperatures that day reached at least the 80s.
No one disputes that Harris left his son in the SUV rather than dropping him off at daycare and that the heat in the vehicle caused the boy’s death. The only disputed issue was whether Harris “intentionally and maliciously allowed his child to suffer this painful death,” Nahmias wrote.
While some of the evidence was appropriate to establish the prosecution’s theory on Harris’ motive, the trial court should have excluded much of it, Nahmias wrote. Highly prejudicial evidence included evidence that Harris exchanged obscene and sometimes illegal messages and photos with four minors, color photos of his genitals taken from text messages and enlarged to show in court, and evidence that he had hired a prostitute, according to the opinion.
The state “convincingly demonstrated that (Harris) was a womanizer, a pervert, and even a sexual predator,” Nahmias wrote. “This evidence did little to answer the key question of (Harris’) intent when he walked away from Cooper, but it likely led the jurors to conclude that (Harris) was the the kind of man who would engage in other morally repugnant conduct (like letting his child die painfully in a hot car) and who deserved to be punished, even if the jurors were unconvinced beyond any reasonable doubt that he had deliberately killed Cooper.
The correctly admitted evidence that Harris wanted her child dead was “far from overwhelming,” Nahmias wrote, adding that “we cannot say that it is highly probable that the wrongly admitted sexual evidence did not contribute to the jury’s verdicts of guilt”.
Judge Charlie Bethel wrote a partial dissent which was joined by Judge Shawn LaGrua and Judge Verda Colvin. He said the state was “entitled to present, in detail, evidence of the nature, scope and extent of the truly sinister motive it attributed to Harris.” For this reason, writes Bethel, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in allowing the impugned evidence.
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