Georgia's Top Court Overturns Conviction in Hot Car Death

Justin Ross Harris can now get new trial
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jun 22, 2022 2:02 PM CDT
Georgia's Top Court Overturns Conviction in Hot Car Death
In this Oct. 3, 2016, file photo, Justin Ross Harris listens during his trial at the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga.   (Stephen B. Morton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool, File)

(Newser) – Georgia's highest court on Wednesday overturned the murder and child cruelty convictions against a man whose toddler son died after he left him in a hot car for hours, saying the jury saw evidence that was "extremely and unfairly prejudicial." Justin Ross Harris, 41, was convicted in November 2016 on eight counts in the 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. All of the Georgia Supreme Court justices agreed that there was sufficient evidence to support Harris' convictions, but the majority opinion written by Chief Justice David Nahmias says that much of the evidence having to do with Harris' sexual activities shouldn't have been admitted and may have improperly influenced the jury, the AP reports.

The ruling means that Harris is entitled to a new trial on the murder and child cruelty charges against him. The high court upheld Harris’ convictions on three sex crimes committed against a 16-year-old girl. He received a total of 12 years in prison for those crimes. Prosecutors argued that Harris was unhappy in his marriage and intentionally killed his son to free himself. To support this theory, they presented extensive evidence of extramarital sexual activities that he engaged in, including exchanging sexually explicit messages and graphic photos with women and girls and meeting some of them for sex. Defense attorneys described him as a doting father and said the boy’s death was a tragic accident.

Cooper was left for about seven hours in the back seat of a Hyundai Tucson SUV outside his father’s office in suburban Atlanta on June 18, 2014. Temperatures that day reached at least into the high 80s. No one disputes that Harris left his son in the SUV rather than dropping him off at day care and that the heat in the vehicle caused the boy's death. The only disputed issue was whether Harris "intentionally and maliciously left his child to suffer that painful death," Nahmias wrote. While some of the evidence was appropriate to establish the prosecution’s theory of Harris’ motive, the trial court should have excluded much of it, Nahmias wrote. (Read more Justin Ross Harris stories.)

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