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The Georgia Supreme Court has overturned a father's murder conviction for leaving his son in a hot car, after determining that the jury may have been biased by his extramarital affairs and sexual contacts with underage girls.
Justin Ross Harris, now 41, left his 22-month-old son Cooper Harris in a hot car in 2014, resulting in the baby's death from hypothermia. He was charged with and convicted of murder and sentenced to life without parole in 2016, CNN reports.
But on Wednesday, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned that conviction in a 6-3 decision, noting that evidence unrelated to the murder submitted by prosecutors in the trial likely had an unfair affect on the jury, according to the ruling.
“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,” wrote Chief Justice David E. Nahmias.
Harris had maintained that he left his son in his SUV by accident, after forgetting to drop off the child at an in-house daycare at Home Depot where he worked as a web developer.
“What was going through Appellant’s mind when he left the vehicle? The State’s theory was that Appellant intentionally and maliciously abandoned his child to die a slow and painful death trapped in the summer heat, so that Appellant could achieve his dream of being free to further his sexual relationships with women he met online,” the ruling stated. “The defense theory was that Appellant was a loving father who had never mistreated Cooper and simply but tragically forgot that he had not dropped off the child on that particular morning.”
Nahmias noted that, during the trial, jurors not only learned about Harris’ extramarital affairs with women, but his sexual contacts with underage girls as well. The jurors were also shown photos of his erect penis.
He had been married to his wife for eight years at the point at which Cooper died.
In addition to murder, Harris was found guilty of two counts of cruelty to children for Cooper's death as well as three counts related to his electronic exchanges of lewd material with minors. These convictions continue to stand; only the murder conviction was overturned.
This week’s ruling notes that the sex crime and cheating “evidence did little if anything to answer the key question of Appellant's intent when he walked away from Cooper, but it was likely to lead the jurors to conclude that Appellant was the kind of man who would engage in other morally repulsive conduct (like leaving his child to die painfully in a hot car) and who deserved punishment," the ruling stated.
They stated that while some of that evidence "was properly admissible," some if it should have been excluded "because it was needlessly cumulative and prejudicial."
The Cobb County District Attorney’s Office told Law&Crime that they plan to file a motion for reconsideration in this case.
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