The Georgia Supreme Court reversed the conviction of Justin Ross Harris for murder and cruelty charges related to the death of his young son, Cooper, in a hot car in 2014.
Evidence improperly admitted at trial may have swayed the jury to convict Harris, the court’s majority opinion found.
That improper evidence concerned other charges Harris faced related to his behavior with a 16-year-old girl between March and June 2014.
Harris was convicted of attempt to commit sexual exploitation of a child and two counts of dissemination of harmful material to a minor for those activities.
Today’s Supreme Court ruling overturns the murder and cruelty charges related to Cooper’s death but does not overturn the convictions for the sexual crimes.
Evidence about Harris’s sexual activities could have influenced the jury to convict him on the charges related to Cooper’s death, the majority opinion found.
The state introduced hundreds of explicit text messages from Harris to young women and girls during the trial. It also showed that Harris had hired a prostitute three times.
“The state convincingly demonstrated [Harris] was a philanderer, a pervert, and even a sexual predator,” Chief Justice David Nahmias wrote in the majority opinion.
That picture of Harris’ character may have led the jurors to convict him even if they were not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that he killed Cooper on purpose, Nahmias said.
“This evidence did little if anything to answer the key question of [Harris’] intent when he walked away from Cooper,” Nahmias said.
“It does not follow [that] because an accused person may have a bad character that he is guilty of the particular offense for which he is tried,” Nahmias noted.
The trial court should have separated the trial for Cooper’s death from the trial for the sexual charges, the opinion said.
Once the improperly admitted evidence was removed, the evidence that Harris intentionally left his son in the car to die was “far from overwhelming,” the opinion noted.
Three justices joined in a partial dissent written by Justice Charlie Bethel.
The evidence about Harris’ sexual activities was admissible because the state had to prove those obsessions were strong enough to make him want to kill Cooper by leaving him in a hot car, Bethel contended.
Harris was initially sentenced life in prison without parole for the death of Cooper and twelve years’ additional time in prison for the sexual crimes.
Now that the charges related to Cooper’s death have been overturned, the Cobb County district attorney will have to decide whether to retry Harris on those charges.
Though the crimes took place in Cobb County, the trial was held in Glynn County in 2016 due to difficulty finding impartial jurors in Cobb.
This story is available through a news partnership with Capitol Beat News Service, a project of the Georgia Press Educational Foundation.