Trial of Justin Ross Harris begins in the hot car death of his 22 month-old son

The Murder trial of Justin Ross Harris will require the jury to piece together the circumstantial evidence of the prosecution and determine the intent of Harris, did he accidentally leave his son in the car as the defense content or was it intentionally, as the prosecution claims.  Monday’s opening statements showed defense attorney Maddox Kilgore refer to his client as being responsible, for a “tragic accident” and not for malice murder. The defendant, Justin Ross Harris, has plead not guilty to charges of malice murder, two counts of felony murder and first degree cruelty to children.

During the trial, Attorney Kilgore plans to use testimony from Harris’s ex-wife who- despite hostility towards Harris and the ending to their relationship- will testify that Harris was a good father and loved his son.

About the Case

The incident took place in June 2014, Harris strapped his 22-month son into his car seat in the back of his car and drove to a fast food restaurant to buy breakfast. He then drove to the Home Depot Headquarters- Harris’s workplace- instead of driving straight to his son’s daycare as was planned. Later that day around 4pm, Harris drove to a movie theater to watch a movie with a few friends- and this is when he noticed his son was still in the car.

Issues for the Defense

According to witness testimonials from the scene, Harris was hysterical as he pulled his son out of the car and apparently screamed “what have I done?”

 

However, the police noted suspicious behaviors that lead them to believe Harris had intentionally left his son in the car:

  • Witness testified Harris’s grief did not seem genuine- that his tears would turn on and off and that he would constantly look around him as if to see if anyone was looking.
  • The police officer that performed CPR on the child claimed that Harris’s hysteria seemed like he was acting.
  • Harris was uncooperative with police, telling them to “f— off” and other profanities.
  • Harris’s infidelity is what ended his marriage to the ex-wife who will testify. Plus, Harris’s sexually immoral behavior while his son was in the car- Harris was allegedly texting extremely explicit texts to various females, one being a 16 year old.
  • Computer searches reveal Harris had visited a website “people who die” featuring videos of deaths, “childfree” website advocating individuals to not have children and add to the population, googled the phrase “how to survive in prison” and watched a video 5 days prior to the death, of a veterinarian showing fatal temperatures inside hot cars.
  • The day prior to his son’s death, he had google babies in hot car and one search for how to survive prison.
  • other evidence includes statements that he made including, why am I being punished for this, showing he was preoccupies with his own fate and a statement that he said did you say too much.
  • Prosecutor also have evidence from online app encouraging people to tell secrets that Ross said he hated being married with kids and wanted time for himself.
  • Further, Ross is alleged to have met with prostitutes days before his son’s death.

To read about this case, AJ Willingham and Max Blau wrote an excellent overview of the issues and the evidence in the case on the CNN.com website.

The trial is scheduled to resume Tuesday according to the Atlanta Constitution, but with Hurricane Matthew, it is unlikely that any testimony will be heard.

As a criminal defense lawyer in Massachusetts, this trial raises interesting issue of circumstantial evidence.  It is very difficult for a prosecutor to prove intent, versus accidental conduct.  In the end, though the prosecution appears to have a strong circumstantial case, it may not be enough to meet the high standard of beyond a reasonable doubt to support a conviction for murder.

 

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