Jury selection continues in the murder trial of Justin Ross Harris, 35, accused of murder after he left his toddler son in a car, strapped in a carseat, for several hours in the hot Georgia sun. Temperatures reached at least into the high 80s the day 22-month-old Cooper died. It was June 18, 2014.
Ross Harris has been jailed since that date. He has always maintained that Cooper’s death was an accident. The State believes Ross Harris wanted his son dead.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s podcast series, Breakdown, is devoting Season 2 to the Ross Harris case. So far, three episodes have been released. The podcast challenges some of the State’s evidence and explains the law behind the separate murder theories. Based on what I’ve read, listened to, and researched, following are some key points to keep in mind as we follow the trial.
The Case Centers on Ross Harris’s State of Mind
The State says Cooper’s death was intentional murder. They also say it was criminally negligent felony murder. (Ross Harris is charged with three counts of murder as explained later.) Ross Harris says this was an accident and that he acted with no criminal state of mind—intentional or negligent. In other words, manner of death is the key: was it an accident or was it a homicide?
To get inside someone’s head, we look at their conduct leading up to, during, and right after the death. Ross Harris worked at Home Depot in Atlanta. He was supposed to drop off Cooper at daycare on the morning of June 18, 2104. He and Cooper had breakfast at an Atlanta Chick-fil-A close to work. At 9:19 am, they left the restaurant. At the first intersection (which would take somewhere between one and two minutes to reach), Ross Harris had the choice of turning left to the daycare center or going straight to Home Depot. He went straight, parked at Home Depot, and went to work. (By the way, the distance between Chick-fil-A and Home Depot is half a mile.)
Ross Harris left work during lunch but didn’t use his own car. He did, however, stop at his car after lunch. He opened the driver’s side door to place a bag of lightbulbs inside. Did he see Cooper in the rear-facing car seat?
Ross Harris then worked the rest of the afternoon, leaving at 4:16 pm to meet friends. Two miles from Home Depot, he claims he suddenly remembered that he hadn’t dropped off Cooper. He screeched to a halt in a shopping center parking lot on Akers Mill Road and found his son. Cooper had been in the car for about seven hours, dead for about five of them. The time was recorded at 4:23 p.m.
We now know that, at breakfast earlier that day, Ross Harris was sexting with several women. If he hadn’t been distracted by these texts during breakfast and just before leaving Cooper in the car, this could be a very different case. But this distraction, coupled with his marital infidelity, interactions with minors, the nature of the text communications, and other conduct cast suspicion over Cooper’s death. Could it be that Ross Harris wanted to kill his son?
Among the evidence the State is expected to use is computer searches allegedly made by Ross Harris into weather and the effects of the sun on objects. Evidence that Ross Harris knew the damage the sun can cause is when, a week before Cooper’s death, he brought his guitar into the office because he knew it could warp if left in a hot car. There was also a computer search for what prison is really like. (All these items were mentioned at a pretrial hearing.)
Errors in Police Testimony at Probable Cause Hearing?
The Breakdown podcast series points out that the lead detective Phil Stoddard made some errors at the probable cause hearing. One of them he has admitted to. Stoddard now acknowledges that a post on a social media site called Whisper was mistakenly attributed to Ross Harris. The post was, in substance, that he hated being married with a kid and that the novelty had worn off. (NOTE: I recall, at the time, thinking this was damning evidence against Ross Harris. Alas, he didn’t even post it.)
Stoddard also claimed to have detected the odor of decomposition. The implication is that when Ross Harris got in his car at the end of the day, he should have also smelled something foul. Ignoring the smell for a few miles was “staging” the discovery of Cooper. Episode 2 of the Breakdown podcast (season 2), however, includes interviews with two forensic pathologists who say that the odor of decomposition wouldn’t be evident within five hours of death. The odor comes from decomposing fat so perhaps an overweight person would create an odor in five hours but not a 22-month-old child who has barely any fat. (Obviously, over several days the odor would get stronger. Remember the State’s argument in Casey Anthony that Caylee was transported in a garbage bag in the trunk of Casey’s car for days?)
Ross Harris’s Behavior after Cooper was Found
Ross Harris made an odd statement when told he could be charged in his son’s death. He said there was “no malicious intent” in his actions. This is not common lay language one would expect to come from a person who’s about to be charged with murder. It suggests some familiarity with the law and what is required to establish murder. Ross Harris has three years of police experience in Alabama which may explain his word choice. At the scene, he was belligerent toward police who, at one point, instructed him to get off the phone. Ross Harris’s response was to “shut the f— up.”
Theories of Murder Charged
Georgia has capital murder (not charged here), malice murder (Ross Harris faces one count) and felony murder (Ross Harris faces two counts). Murder is not divided into degrees in Georgia as we see in other states.
Malice murder and felony murder carry life sentences with parole eligibility after 30 years.
Malice murder is intentional murder. Felony murder is causing a death during the commission of a felony. The underlying felonies–one for each felony murder count–is “cruelty to children in the first degree” and “cruelty to children in the second degree.” The difference between first and second degree is the state of mind. One is intentional and one is with criminal negligence. In essence, criminal negligence is engaging in reckless or careless conduct that you know can hurt or kill someone–and not caring whether it hurts or kills someone. In other words, it’s a gross disregard for the safety or welfare of others.
Jury selection is expected to last well into next week.