The 2016 murder conviction of Georgia father Justin Ross Harris has been overturned eight years after his 22-month-old son died when he was left in a hot vehicle. The Georgia Supreme Court on Wednesday announced its decision about Harris, who had been found guilty of malice murder, among other charges, regarding the death of his son.
Cooper died June 18, 2014, of hyperthermia from being left in his father’s SUV while he was at work at a Home Depot corporate office in Marietta, Georgia. At the time of Harris’ trial, prosecutors argued that the father had “neglected” his son in the car and intentionally left him there because he was involved in sexting conversations with women who were minors.
According to reports, Harris was originally “combative” with first responders in 2014 when they arrived at the scene.
Detective Jacquelyn Piper testified during the trial that Harris was “initially combative” with first responders who arrived to tend to Cooper. He had been on his cellphone when they got there and told the first responders to “shut the f— up” when they questioned him.
However, he apparently was “calm and collected” when he was questioned at the police station. When authorities informed Harris of the possibility of murder charges, he claimed he had “no malicious intent” when his son died.
In addition to the murder charges, Harris was found guilty of sexual charges.
Months after Harris was charged with the murder of his son, he was also charged with two additional counts of sexual exploitation of children and six counts of “disseminating harmful material to minors,” according to NBC News.
The incriminating information was discovered in the months authorities were investigating Harris’ past during the murder trial. Evidence apparently was found of Harris’ inappropriate and sexual conversations with two minors, which included sharing nude photographs.
Harris’ defense lawyers argued that the focus of the inappropriate conversations with minors was “needlessly cumulative and prejudicial.”
Attorneys argued that the evidence was fixated more on the inappropriate behavior and conversations with minors, leading jurors to believe that Harris had “intentionally” left Cooper in the car.
The trial was not for charges of sexual counts but instead to prove whether or not there was malicious intent in Harris’ actions, they said. Defense attorneys noted that the evidence on the sexual charges should have been “excluded” from Harris’ murder trial.
In the Georgia Supreme Court’s 6-3 decision to overturn the conviction, Chief Justice David Nahmias stated the sexual evidence was “erroneously admitted” to the murder trial.
“Because the properly admitted evidence that Appellant (Harris) 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. We therefore reverse Appellant’s convictions on the counts charging crimes against Cooper,” Nahmias wrote in the decision.
The court stated that the evidence did little to answer the key question in the trial.
Although the court recognized that the evidence depicting Harris’ sexual acts and behaviors proved that he was a sexual devient and predator, it did little to answer the actual question of the trial: his intention when Cooper was left in the SUV while he went into his office, People reported.
Having the conviction overturned means Harris can ask for a new trial in connection with Cooper’s death.
Harris will, however, remain in prison for his conviction on the other charges.
Harris was found guilty of one count of exploitation of a child and two counts of dissemination of harmful material to a minor. According to the courts, he will remain in prison over these charges.
Harris’ legal team told NBC News that they are very pleased with the decision to overturn the murder conviction.
“We are thrilled that the Georgia Supreme Court has reversed Ross’s murder convictions, but make no mistake — this decision comes as no surprise. Inadmissible evidence can lead juries to wrongfully convict an innocent person,” said lawyer Carlos J. Rodriguez.