A father from Georgia will not face another trial over his toddler’s death in a hot car, prosecutors said Thursday, after the Georgia Supreme Court last year reversed his murder and child cruelty convictions.
Justin Ross Harris, 42, was found guilty in November 2016 on eight counts including malice murder in the June 2014 death of his 22-month-old son, Cooper. A judge sentenced him to life without parole, as well as 32 more years in prison for other crimes.
But the state Supreme Court voted 6-3 to overturn his murder and child cruelty convictions last June, saying the jury saw evidence that was “extremely and unfairly prejudicial.”
The Cobb County district attorney’s office, which prosecuted the case, said in a statement that it disagreed with the majority’s decision. But because of that ruling, prosecutors said crucial evidence about Harris’ motive is no longer available for them to use.
After doing a thorough review of the entire case, prosecutors said they decided not to retry Harris on the reversed counts. A judge on Thursday signed off on the dismissal of those charges.
Harris’ lawyers — Maddox Kilgore, Carlos Rodriguez and Bryan Lumpkin — have maintained from the start that Harris was a loving father and the boy’s death was a tragic accident.
“Ross has always accepted the moral responsibility for Cooper’s death,” they said in a statement after the charges were dismissed. “But after all these years of investigation and review, this dismissal of charges confirms that Cooper’s death was unintentional and therefore not a crime.”
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The high court upheld Harris’ convictions on three sex crimes committed against a 16-year-old girl that Harris had not appealed. He received a total of 12 years in prison for those crimes, and he will continue to serve that sentence, the district attorney’s office said.
Harris had moved from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to the Atlanta area for work in 2012. He told police that on the morning of June 18, 2014, he forgot to drop Cooper at day care, driving straight to his job as a web developer for Home Depot and leaving the child 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 into the high 80s.
The Georgia Supreme Court justices all agreed that there was enough evidence to support Harris’ convictions. But the majority opinion said much of the evidence having to do with his sexual activities shouldn’t have been allowed at trial and may have improperly influenced the jury.
At trial, prosecutors put forth a theory that Harris was miserable in his marriage and killed his son so he could be free. In support of that assertion, they presented evidence of his extramarital sexual activities, including exchanging sexually explicit messages and graphic photos with women and girls and meeting some of them for sex.
The high court found that they 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 (Harris)?”
A dissenting opinion found that the state had the right to introduce detailed evidence of “the nature, scope, and extent of the truly sinister motive it ascribed to Harris” and found that the trial court was not wrong to allow the jury to see the challenged evidence.
Harris’ attorneys said the case “tragically fits the pattern of how children are unintentionally left in cars.”
“Charging a grieving parent for an unintentional memory failure does nothing to prevent the tragedy from happening to another,” their statement said. “In fact, child fatalities from hot cars increased after Ross’ 2016 trial.”
Harris’ case drew an extraordinary amount of attention, drawing intense coverage in the Atlanta area and making national headlines and sparking debates online and on cable news shows. After determining during nearly three weeks of jury selection that pretrial publicity had made it too hard to find a fair jury in Cobb County in suburban Atlanta, the presiding judge agreed to relocate the trial to Brunswick on the Georgia coast.
Harris' lawyers Maddox Kilgore, Carlos Rodriguez, and Bryan Lumpkin released the following statement following the judge's decision:
Almost 9 years after the tragic death of Cooper Harris on June 18, 2014, the murder and child cruelty charges against Justin Ross Harris, Cooper's father, have been dismissed. Cobb County Superior Court Judge Robert Leonard signed an order today which terminates the prosecution of our client. Ross has always accepted the moral responsibility for Cooper's death. But after all these years of investigation and review, this dismissal of charges confirms that Cooper's death was unintentional and therefore not a crime.
We are grateful for the support of Janette Fennell and Amber Rollins of KidsAndCars.org and of Dr. David Diamond for their work preventing hot car deaths. Their guidance helped us understand how Cooper's death tragically fits the pattern of how children are unintentionally left in cars.
The statistics are clear - on average, 39 children die in hot cars every year in the U.S. And criminalizing unintentional deaths, like in this case, is not a deterrent to future hot car tragedies. Charging a grieving parent for an unintentional memory failure does nothing to prevent the tragedy from happening to another. In fact, child fatalities from hot cars increased after Ross' 2016 trial, the most widely reported hot car death case in history. Sadly, 2018 & 2019 were the worst 2 years in history for child hot car deaths with 54 & 53 fatalities respectively.
This nine-year experience has led us to agree with the advocates at KidsAndCars.org that charging parents like Ross further perpetuates the very common, but false, belief that only bad parents can have a memory failure resulting in a child forgotten in a car.
Indeed, throughout the course of representing Ross, we have learned that these tragic accidents often happen while the child is in the care of a loving parent. Ross was no different. He deeply loved Cooper. Ross is no doubt relieved at the dismissal of the charges against him, but he is also thankful that today’s dismissal may begin to restore Cooper's legacy as a child much loved by his parents.