If you believe Justin Ross Harris, it took less than two minutes for him to forget that his only child, Cooper, was strapped into the back of the family SUV on the morning of June 18, 2014.
Just a few hours after that lapse — if indeed it was a lapse and not a deliberate act — 22-month-old Cooper was dead, trapped inside a locked car in which temperatures reached 120 degrees, according to the toddler’s autopsy.
Jury selection in the Cobb County father’s murder trial began for a second time earlier this month. It wrapped up 10 days later with a full jury pool. Opening statements are set to begin at 1 p.m. Monday. Watch every moment live with Channel 2's gavel-to-gavel coverage at RossHarrisTrial.com
Here are 10 things to know before it starts:
Harris was arrested and charged with murder just hours after Cooper Harris was found dead in the back of his SUV. An indictment filed against Harris in September 2014 listed the following eight charges: malice murder, 2 counts of felony murder, cruelty to children in the first degree, cruelty to children in the second degree, criminal attempt to commit a felony of sexual exploitation of children, and two counts of dissemination of harmful material to minors. A murder conviction in Georgia carries a life sentence in prison.
On the morning of his son’s death, Ross Harris sent a text to a woman over an anonymous social network called Whisper that read: “I love my son and all. But we both need escapes.” The discovery of thousands of sexual texts, sexting and extramarital affairs has been devastating. In February, Harris was indicted on eight charges involving sexually exploiting underage girls. He was accused of possessing lewd photographs of two underage girls, sending nude photos to those girls and one other and engaging in sexually explicit chats with all three. The eight-count indictment includes two counts of sexual exploitation of children and six of disseminating harmful material to a minor. (He will be tried later on these charges.)
Leanna Harris stuck by Ross even after a probable cause hearing in which prosecutors chronicled her husband’s alleged sexual escapades in detail. But just two months before his initial April murder trial, she filed for divorce in Cobb County Superior Court, saying the couple’s once-strong bond was “irretrievably broken.” The prosecution has subpoenaed Leanna Taylor, as she is now known, but she could also testify voluntarily for the defense. She still believes that her son's death was a terrible accident, that her ex-husband could never have harmed their child in that way, her attorney says.
Documents obtained by Channel 2 Action News and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed that Harris had researched child deaths inside vehicles before his son’s death. During an interview with police, documents say, “Harris stated that he recently researched, through the internet, child deaths inside vehicles and what temperature it needs to be for that to occur. (He) stated that he was fearful that this could happen.” The defense argues that's not true. They say Harris at one point clicked on a trending video on Reddit about dogs dying in hot cars, but he never searched for information on the topic as the warrant suggests.
In the weeks following Cooper’s death, several friends said the Harrises loved each other and adored their son. In their eyes, Cooper’s death was a tragedy that devastated both parents. Though prosecutors have painted his online searches of a child-free life and browsing videos of hot car scenarios as motives, friends say Ross, an avid researcher, simply had a quirky, inquisitive nature. According to Billy Kirkpatrick, who counts himself as Ross’s best friend, Ross is endlessly curious. “He’s a fact-checker kind of guy,” Kirkpatrick said. “If he hears about something on TV or in conversation, he likes to read up on the topic in online articles, videos and blogs. He is always researching new subjects and telling others about what he has learned.”
After individually interviewing around 90 potential jurors in Cobb County earlier this year, Harris’ defense team filed a change-of-venue motion on Day 13 of jury questioning. Lawyers argued that the high-profile nature of the case caused many of the potential jurors to be biased toward guilt, and Judge Mary Staley agreed. Court officials say Brunswick was the clear choice for the trial. Cobb County moved another high-profile trial there in 2007 as well.
After eight days of jury selection in Glynn County, a pool of 45 jurors is now in place. Finding impartial jurors was difficult because of the high-profile nature of the case, but it was much easier in Glynn County. Several jurors testified that they do already have some sort of opinion in the case, but believe they can set that opinion aside. The 45 jurors in the pool will return Monday for lawyers to make their final strikes.
Details released shortly after Cooper Harris' death cast further doubt on the story Harris told Cobb County police. Harris originally told police his SUV with his son inside was parked unattended all day. Harris went out to lunch with friends and stopped to buy light bulbs at Home Depot. An arrest warrant later stated he opened the driver-side door of his Hyundai Tucson, placed the light bulbs in the vehicle, and then went back to work. “I understand that tragic accidents similar to this one do occur and in most cases the parent simply made a mistake that cost them the life of their child,” Cobb County Police Chief John Houser said during a press conference.
Dueling narratives have characterized the defense motion to suppress all evidence of Harris’ extramarital dalliances on the grounds that such evidence is irrelevant to the charges against him. But even as lead defense attorney Maddox Kilgore fought to keep statements made by his client’s paramours out of the trial, he said such testimony might actually hurt the prosecution’s case. “In a nutshell, they’re arguing that any explicit sexual communications or acts constitute evidence of murder,” Kilgore said. “From what we’ve seen, there’s no evidence of him wanting to commit violence, no history of neglect or indifference.” Georgia State University law professor Jessica Gabel added Harris' actions on that June day "might show reckless disregard, but without a smoking gun it will be difficult to prove malice.”
Lawyers made their final juror strikes from the qualified jury pool Monday morning. The selected jury consists of 12 jurors and four alternates. It is made up of eight women and eight men. Opening statements are scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. You can watch the entire trial LIVE on WSBTV.com/Ross-Harris-Trial. We will have minute-by-minute coverage as well as a daily summary from the courtroom each day. Like Ross Harris Updates on Facebook and follow @RossHarrisTrial for updates throughout the trial.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution contributed to this report.
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