BRUNSWICK, Georgia — A prosecutor Monday painted Justin Ross Harris — the Georgia father accused of leaving his son in a hot SUV, killing him — as a philanderer and manipulator who wanted to be free of his family so he “could move on to his other life.”
“On that day, when his child was cooking to death, he was messaging a girl, 16, to get vaginal pictures from her,” Cobb County Assistant District Attorney Chuck Boring said in opening statements.
As he addressed the jury, Boring stood alongside a posterboard with the words, “I hate being married with kids. The novelty has worn off and I have nothing to show for it,” which the prosecutor said was a quote from Harris.
Harris, who is standing trial roughly 300 miles away from Cobb County in Brunswick after a judge granted a change of venue, has pleaded not guilty to charges of malice murder, two counts of felony murder and first-degree cruelty to children.
Harris’ legal team has said the father forgot his 22-month-old son was in the car, and that the death of Cooper, his only child, was a tragic accident. The defense is scheduled to present its opening statement Tuesday.
Prosecutor cites odd behavior
Some of the charges in Harris’ indictment stem not from Cooper’s death, but from Harris’ alleged habit of sending sexual text messages to underage girls. According to prosecutors, Harris was having chats with as many as six females on the day his son died.
Boring said the Harris case will hinge on the deception with which Harris carried himself before and after police responded to reports that his child had died.
Harris, for instance, told coworkers that day that he would go to lunch if someone else drove. By lunchtime, Cooper had been in the back seat of Harris’ vehicle for hours.
The prosecutor likened Harris to comedic actor Will Ferrell and mocked the way Harris said, “Oh my gosh, what have I done?” after he purportedly realized he’d left the boy in the car all day and bystanders tried to save the child. Boring also questioned the haste with which Harris told officers Cooper was dead.
Boring turned many of Harris’ words against him, namely his initial response as to why Cooper had been left in the car: “‘I guess I forgot, and I forgot to do a second look’ — those are the words he used.”
Boring said that when confronted by police, Harris told them, “But there was no malicious intent.” Yet, Boring said, “Cobb County police had not said anything about this being intentional.”
“You will see the deception and the double life — how he behaved and how he lied in this case,” Boring said. “The defendant intended to kill Cooper and he intended to do all the things that killed Cooper.”
Were there clues?
Had Harris not intended to let Cooper die, Boring alleged, there were many points at which Harris should have been reminded that Cooper was still in the vehicle:
– Harris had just eaten breakfast with Cooper at Chick-fil-A minutes before leaving him in the car;
– once at work, a short distance from the daycare Cooper attended daily, Harris did not close his car door for 30 seconds after parking;
– Harris dropped off light bulbs in his car after lunch;
– and, following work, as Harris drove to a movie theater five or six minutes away, there was no reason Harris shouldn’t have smelled Cooper’s sweaty body and soiled diaper.
“The evidence will show that he thought he was going to get away with this,” Boring said.
Harris was also dishonest when he told police he had a “great relationship with his wife,” when in actuality, there was ample evidence of “numerous intimacy problems and that he was very unhappy,” Boring said.
“His behavior was out of control. It was spiraling in the months leading up to this,” the prosecutor said. “He was going to prostitutes.”
The judge in the case impaneled a half-male, half-female jury shortly before opening statements and tapped two men and two women to serve as alternates.
The defense is expected to attempt to make the case that Harris was a loving father who experienced a tragic — but not unheard of — breach of memory.
While the case centers on Cooper’s death, prosecutors plan to introduce evidence to support allegations that the churchgoing 35-year-old regularly sought sexual fulfillment outside his marriage and maintained a sordid online presence.
In May, Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley agreed to move the trial from the metro Atlanta county, saying the defense made a “substantive showing” that extensive publicity may have prejudiced jurors.
‘There’s no other explanation’
It was June 18, 2014, when Harris, then 33, strapped his son Cooper into a rear-facing carseat and drove from their Marietta, Georgia, home to the Chick-fil-A for breakfast. Harris then drove to The Home Depot corporate headquarters nearby, where he worked, rather than dropping Cooper off at daycare first, according to the charges.
Sometime after 4 p.m., as Harris drove to the theater, he noticed his son was still in the car, Harris told police.
Harris turned into a shopping center parking lot and pulled Cooper’s lifeless body from the car. His screams attracted a crowd, some of whom called 911. Others attempted to administer first aid.
Witnesses said Harris was hyperventilating and screaming. In the meantime his wife, Leanna Harris, was already headed to the daycare to pick up Cooper. When she learned Cooper had never arrived, witnesses said she came to an immediate conclusion.
“Ross must have left him in the car,” she’s reported as saying. “There’s no other explanation. Ross must have left him in the car.”
At 10 p.m. that day, Justin Ross Harris was arrested. An autopsy later confirmed that Cooper died of hyperthermia.