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Prosecutors decline to retry Justin Ross Harris for son’s hot car death, citing lack of ‘crucial motive evidence’ after court ruling

Justin Ross Harris. (Mugshot: Georgia Department of Corrections)

Justin Ross Harris. (Mugshot: Georgia Department of Corrections)

Almost a year after a state high court overturned his murder conviction, prosecutors announced that they will not seek to retry Justin Ross Harris for leaving his 22-month-old son Cooper Harris to die in a hot car.

The Supreme Court of Georgia ruled last year that the trial court improperly failed to sever charges involving one of the minors with whom defendant Harris communicated.

“For the last 11 months, the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office has conducted a thorough review of the entire case file,” Cobb County prosecutors said. “Crucial motive evidence that was admitted at the first trial in 2016 is no longer available to the State due to the majority decision of the Supreme Court. Therefore, after much thought and deliberation, we have made the difficult decision to not retry Justin Ross Harris on the reversed counts of the indictment.”

Harris, 42, will continue to serve his 12-year prison sentence for charges including criminal attempt to commit sexual exploitation of children and dissemination of harmful material to minors.

Cooper tragically passed away on June 18, 2014, after his father left him in an SUV during work, according to the high court’s ruling. The child, who had been strapped into a rear-facing car seat in the back, was supposed to be at a day care. Prosecutors argued that defendant Harris meant to kill the child in order to free himself up for more extramarital relationships. That included sexing an underage high school girl. Evidence at the murder trial included enlarged pictures of Harris’ penis.

The court determined that those charges, when tried with the murder charge, were prejudicial, and without that extra evidence, they are not sure a jury would have convicted Harris of the latter.

“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,” then-Chief Justice David E. Nahmias wrote for the majority in a 6-3 decision.

Messages of Harris’ extramarital affairs and the like could be relevant to the case, but only in regard to the timeline of events, the court 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 the 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 court upheld charges in connection to Harris sexting the girl. Harris’ ex-wife, Leanna Taylor, defended him in a 2017 interview with ABC News. She said there was no evidence in their relationship that he would harm anyone, “much less his own son.”

“We would like to thank the Cobb County Police Department, all current and prior DA’s Office staff, and all other agencies who worked tirelessly for years to obtain justice for Cooper,” prosecutors said Thursday. “Cooper will always be remembered by this Office and those who fought for him.”

More Law&Crime coverage: ‘Irresponsible and reckless’ father sentenced to 4 years in federal prison for his children’s hot car deaths

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