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Man who was sentenced to life in prison over the hot car death of his toddler will not be retried as conviction overturned

By Ben Marquis
|
May 26, 2023

A Georgia man who received a life sentence for the 2014 death of his toddler child who was left in a hot car saw that conviction overturned by the Georgia Supreme Court in 2022.

Now nearly a year later, prosecutors have announced that Justin Ross Harris, 42, will not be retried on murder and cruelty charges related to the death of his two-year-old son Cooper, the Daily Mail reported.

Harris will, however, continue to serve out the remainder of a 12-year sentence he received at the same time, which he has not challenged on appeal, for sending sexually explicit messages to a 16-year-old girl at that time.

The reason why prosecutors have decided against an attempt to retry Harris is that the Georgia Supreme Court's ruling to overturn the murder conviction called into question some of the evidence the state had submitted at trial to establish a motive for Harris to have intentionally killed his child.

Prosecutors Submitted Evidence of Extramarital Sexual Activities to Establish Motive

CBS News reported that on the morning of June 18, 2014, Harris drove to his Atlanta-area job as a web developer for Home Depot but failed to drop his son Cooper off at daycare along the way, and instead left the child strapped into a rear-facing child seat in his Hyundai Tucson SUV for around seven hours on a hot day.

Harris told the police, and his attorneys argued at trial -- and his now-ex-wife Leana agreed -- that Cooper's death had been a terrible and tragic accident and that he had loved his son dearly and would never intentionally cause harm to him.

Cobb County prosecutors, however, submitted an overwhelming amount of evidence to establish a motive that Harris was a sex addict who was engaged in extramarital sexual activities with dozens of other women, including sexual conversations and actual sexual acts on occasion, and that he was miserable in his marriage to Leana and deliberately sought to kill his child in order to end that union and be free to pursue other sexual relationships.

Among the dozens of women with whom Harris had messaged sexually was the 16-year-old girl, and in addition to five counts related to Cooper's death, Harris was also charged and tried at the same time with three sex crimes related to that underage girl.

He was ultimately convicted on all counts in 2016 and sentenced to life in prison without parole for murder plus an additional 32 years for child cruelty and the charges for sex crimes with a minor.

Overwhelming Amount of Sexual Evidence was "Extremely and Unfairly Prejudicial"

In a 6-3 ruling last year, however, the Georgia Supreme Court determined that prosecutors had been overzealous in their effort to establish an alleged motive for Harris deliberately murdering his child, the court reversed the murder and cruelty convictions but upheld the other sex crimes convictions.

The court's majority asserted that the sex crimes should have been prosecuted separately from the murder and cruelty charges and that the evidence submitted by prosecutors of his extramarital sexual activities, including multiple full-size color photos of his penis that he had sent to other women, had been "extremely and unfairly prejudicial" in negatively influencing the jury against Harris.

"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," the majority concluded in its decision to reverse the convictions, though they did acknowledge that the state could attempt to retry Harris without the additional sexual evidence.

Prosecutors Decline to Retry Murder Charges

Law & Crime reported that Cobb County prosecutors said in a statement Thursday, "For the last 11 months, the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office has conducted a thorough review of the entire case file."

"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," the statement continued.

"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," the prosecutors added. "Cooper will always be remembered by this Office and those who fought for him."

Harris' Attorneys Maintain Cooper's Death was "Unintentional"

CBS News noted that the trio of attorneys representing Harris, who have long insisted the death of Cooper was nothing more than a tragic accident, said in a statement in response to the dismissed charges, "Ross has always accepted the moral responsibility for Cooper's death."

"But after all these years of investigation and review, this dismissal of charges confirms that Cooper's death was unintentional and therefore not a crime," they added.