COBB COUNTY, Ga. — Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds said justice was served Monday when a judge handed down a life sentence for Ross Harris. But Reynolds also said he does not consider the sentence a victory or a reason to celebrate.
Judge Mary Staley sentenced the 36-year-old father to life without parole plus 32 years for his son’s death in a hot car.
Harris left his 22-month-old son, Cooper, inside his SUV for nearly seven hours in June 2014. The toddler died of hyperthermia.
Last month, a jury convicted Harris on eight counts: malice murder, two counts of felony murder, cruelty to children in the first degree, cruelty to children in the second degree, criminal attempt to commit a felony, to wit; sexual exploitation of children and two counts of dissemination of harmful material to minors.
- Count 1 - Life without parole
- Count 4 - 20 years to serve
- Count 6 - 10 years to serve
- Count 7- 12 months to serve
- Count 8 - 12 months to serve
During his trial, Harris chose not to testify. On Monday, he made the same decision, choosing not to speak as Staley prepared to sentence him.
Harris’ lawyers also declined to put up any argument or call in any witnesses during sentencing, telling the judge “We have no argument.”
"I think that was really because he saw the wall and he knew that would not make a difference with the judge. She clearly made up her mind. I mean, the sentence sheet was already prepared,” legal analyst Ashley Merchant said.
Prosecutors did not put up any evidence either, saying the six-week trial against Harris had said it all. They asked for the maximum sentence.
"There's only one sentence to match the evil acts he did,” lead prosecutor Chuck Boring told Staley.
The judge said she'd follow the state's recommendation. She said the jury's verdict showed they believed the murder of Cooper Harris was deliberate and wanton and that Cooper's horrendous death called for the sentence.
“(This was) a horrendous, horrific experience for this 22-month-old child, who had been placed in the trust of his father who in violation and dereliction of duty to that child, if not love of that child, callously walked away and left that child in a hot car in June in Georgia in the summer to swelter and die," Staley said.
Harris and his attorneys then calmly and quietly signed the paperwork that would send him to prison for life.
“I don’t think there was anybody in that courtroom that was surprised. In fact, I think the defense expected it, which is why they didn’t put up any witnesses,” legal analyst Esther Panitch said.
Before Harris was taken back to jail, Staley had a message for him.
"I went back and reviewed your statements to police and your statements to your wife when you were taken into custody. And it stood out to me that in both of those you took the occasion to express your wish that you would be an advocate so that people would never do this again to their children. And I would say, perhaps not in the way that you intended, that you have in fact accomplished that goal," Staley told Harris after reading the sentence.
Panitch she believes that if the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office had decided to seek the death penalty, Harris very well might have gotten it.
“It was a horrific act. The judge said it was horrendous,” Panitch said.
In 2014, the state announced it would not seek the death penalty against Harris.
“After reviewing Georgia’s death penalty statute and considering other factors, the State will not seek the death penalty in this case at this time. I cannot and will not elaborate at this juncture of the case," Reynolds said in a statement.
Reynolds said Monday that he doesn’t regret his decision not to seek the death penalty against Harris.
“I think it was appropriate at the time and I think this sentence is appropriate today,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds said he hopes this will send a message to parents.
“We hope and pray in this office that every parent will make sure that he or she is very careful about the circumstances of a child in a car,” Reynolds said. “We learned, I learned, in this case that on occasion, accidents happen. They do. But this wasn’t an accident.”
Harris has 30 days to file an appeal and his attorneys have already announced their intention to do so.
After the verdict was read in November, defense attorney Maddox Kilgore immediately said he planned to file a motion for a new trial.
Merchant said she expects the appeal to focus on issues that pushed the defense to call for a mistrial multiple times during the trial. Those includes their concern with the jury leaving the courtroom to view Harris’ SUV, the inclusion of a controversial 3-D animation and the introduction of bad-character evidence showing Harris sexting and cheating with women.
“Most importantly, I think the fact that the judge would not allow him to put in a full defense (will be the basis for the appeal). (She) wouldn’t allow them to cross-examine the officers and put in the evidence that some of the police reports and some of the testimony was not true,” Merchant said.
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The appeal will go to the Supreme Court, and Merchant said that phase will be much more routine.
''It really doesn't have to do with guilt or innocence. It has to deal with whether you had a fair trial,” Merchant said.
On Monday, Harris attorneys left the courthouse without making a comment.
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