COBB COUNTY, Ga. - A judge approved a change-of-venue motion Monday to move the Ross Harris murder trial out of Cobb County.
Harris is accused of intentionally leaving his 2-year-old son, Cooper, to die in a hot car for more than seven hours in June 2014.
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.
“To say that the jury questionnaires show a pervasive knowledge and extreme opinions that are negative to the defendant is an understatement,” she said. “This courtroom has not been a place of mild opinions.”
Legal analyst Esther Panitch called the decision a "huge surprise" that nobody saw coming.
"(This is) a big win for the constitution and due process," Panitch said.
The motion came after nearly three weeks of jury selection, on Day 13 of questioning individual jurors. Staley had already qualified 41 jurors to serve in the jury pool, just one shy of the 42 needed before the trial could move forward.
The motion detailed what jurors said about coming into the courthouse with the idea that Ross Harris is guilty. Many said they could set their opinions aside in trial but defense attorneys said that wasn’t good enough.
When asked if they can be impartial, defense says several jurors said "I hope I can." He says hope isn't good enough pic.twitter.com/4BcUEYunwO— Ross Harris Trial (@RossHarrisTrial) May 2, 2016
Staley lectured the lawyers moving the trial would cost taxpayers a great deal of money and stress court officials and witnesses.
"It’s not that we can't do this, venue is changed regularly, but y'all need to think about this,” Staley said.
The defense told her they didn't initially want to move the trial out of Cobb County, but jury selection has proved that too many jurors are already biased.
"It’s a sad, tragic, difficult case and we can’t undo the horrible tragedy that’s occurred, but what we’re trying to do is prevent another tragedy from happening," defense attorney Bryan Lumpkin told the judge.
The defense suggested busing in jurors from another county so the trial could still take place in Cobb County, but Staley adamantly denied that request.
"There is no way on Earth I would ever consider doing that to anybody, period,” Staley said.
The state questioned why it took so long for the defense to file this motion, saying that the issue of venue has been on everyone's mind for months.
"It's absurd the defense would now argue we need a venue change not weeks ago when this was in question, but now when we've proved we can,” said prosecutor Chuck Boring.
But Staley said she agreed with the defense that the case was too well-known in Cobb County to find a fair and impartial jury.
Panitch says Staley likely approved the motion to avoid a possible re-trial. Panith says if Staley had not moved the trial an appellate court could overturn any conviction and send the case back to Cobb County to be retried, which would be more expensive to taxpayers than moving it now.
“While we’re certainly disappointed, we understand and respect the court’s ruling. Whenever and wherever this case is set for trial, the state will be ready," said Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds.
Jury selection will start over once another venue can be found, which could take several months.
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