The Georgia Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned a murder conviction and associated charges against father Justin Ross Harris, 41, who left his son Cooper Harris, 22 months, to die in a hot car. In a 6-3 decision, the state’s highest court upheld Harris’s conviction for sexting an underage high school girl, but the majority determined the state went overboard by submitting evidence of the defendant’s extramarital pursuits in the homicide case. That erroneously submitted evidence included pictures of the defendant’s penis.
“Notably, at oral argument in this Court, the State’s counsel acknowledged that she did not know of a proper purpose for which the prosecutor introduced these nine, enlarged copies of pictures of Appellant’s erect penis,” Chief Justice David E. Nahmias wrote.
Defendant Harris left his son in his SUV while at work on June 18, 2014. He said he discovered his son after his shift was complete.
“I couldn’t compose myself to do it,” Harris said, referring to CPR. “And he had that stare in his face. I knew he was gone.”
He insisted to investigators that his son’s death was an accident.
“I knew that I had done what every parent in their life fears they’ve done, and that’s just leave their son in a car on a hot day,” he said.
It turned out that Harris, who voiced displeasure at being married with children, sought out multiple affairs and paid for prostitution. Prosecutors in Cobb County, Georgia, asserted he killed Cooper in order to free himself up for more affairs. He was convicted in 2016 and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
The Georgia Supreme Court determined the trial court erred by refusing to sever the charges involving one of the minors with whom defendant Harris communicated. The court determined that those charges, when tried with the murder charge, were prejudicial.
“Because the properly admitted evidence that Appellant maliciously and intentionally left Cooper to die was far from overwhelming, we cannot say that it is highly probable that the erroneously admitted sexual evidence did not contribute to the jury’s guilty verdicts,” Nahmias wrote.
Messages of Harris’ extramarital affairs and the like could be relevant to the case, but only in regard to the timeline of events, the majority determined. For example, messages Harris sent and received beginning at 12:14 a.m. on June 18, 2014 and continuing throughout the day could have helped show his state of mind, Nahmias wrote.
The court noted those messages did not show the young ages of the women involved. Nor did they show any activity that was illegal on its face. Nor did those messages show any “enlarged pictures of Appellant’s penis.”
Some evidence from before that day would be necessary to show the contexts of those relationships, but the state introduced all that was available. In other words, the court reasoned that state became greedy and smeared the defendant’s broader reputation without focusing on the issue at hand: whether the defendant “maliciously and intentionally” killed his son. The issue is not unique to the Harris case, and there are entire rules of evidence which deal with the distinction drawn here by the court.
From the opinion:
[A]lthough the evidence presented at Appellant’s trial was legally sufficient to support his convictions for the crimes against Cooper, and some of the evidence regarding Appellant’s sexual activities was properly admissible as intrinsic evidence of those crimes or to establish the State’s motive theory, the trial court should have excluded much of this evidence under OCGA § 24-4-403 because it was needlessly cumulative and prejudicial, including three categories of highly prejudicial evidence: the evidence that Appellant exchanged lewd and sometimes illegal sexual messages and pictures with four minors; the nine color pictures of Appellant’s erect penis that the State extracted from messages and blew up to full-page size as separate exhibits; and the evidence that Appellant hired a prostitute three times.
Some of the justices would have let the murder conviction stand.
“Because details relating to the cause and manner of Cooper’s death were largely undisputed, intent (informed by motive) was the only real question in the case,” Justice Charles J. Bethel said. “I believe the State was entitled to introduce, in detail, evidence of the nature, scope, and extent of the truly sinister motive it ascribed to Harris.”
The state supreme court noted that the state can retry Harris.
“Our office plans to file a motion for reconsideration in this case,” the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office said in a statement to Law&Crime.
The full opinion is below:
[Image via Georgia Department of Corrections]
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