UPDATE: The office of Cobb County District Attorney Flynn Broady Jr. issued the following brief statement: “Our office plans to file a motion for reconsideration in this case.”
The Supreme Court of Georgia overturned the high-profile murder conviction of Ross Harris for leaving his son in a hot car in 2014, leading to the child’s death. Harris went to his job at The Home Depot, leaving the child in his hot SUV. His claim was that he forgot to drop his son at daycare, and that he forgot about him when he got to work.
Only the murder conviction was overturned, so Harris will remain incarcerated for convictions related to his sexually explicit messages sent to an underage girl, an incident that figured prominently in the much-publicized case.
The dissenters with the ruling were justices Charles Bethel, Shawn Ellen LaGrua, and Verda M. Colvin, with Bethel writing the dissent.
The opinion of the court majority, written by Chief Justice David Nahmias describes the incident leading to the arrest and conviction of Harris, as follows:
At 9:26 a.m. on June 18, 2014, Appellant Justin Ross Harris closed the door of his Hyundai Tucson SUV and walked into work.
His 22-month-old son Cooper, whom Appellant was supposed to have dropped off at a day care center as usual on the way to work that morning, was strapped into a rear-facing car seat in the back seat. After hours in the hot car, Cooper died of hyperthermia.
The reason the court overturned the conviction of murder in a 6-3 decision was the prosecution’s handling of the graphic evidence of Harris’s sexual behavior. The evidence of his sexual activity was allowed in the trial by Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley Clark.
But the State also presented a substantial amount of evidence to lead the jury to answer a different and more legally problematic question: what kind of man is Appellant? Through extensive evidence about Appellant’s extramarital sexual relationships – which included sending graphic sexual messages and pictures to multiple women, including minors, and hiring a prostitute – the State convincingly demonstrated that Appellant was a philanderer, a pervert, and even a sexual predator. This 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, even if the jurors were not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that he purposefully killed Cooper.
Nahmias further wrote, “the trial court should have excluded much of this evidence under OCGA § 24-4-403 because it was needlessly cumulative and prejudicial, including three categories of highly prejudicial evidence.”