Monday afternoon, a jury in Brunswick, Georgia found Justin Ross Harris guilty of malice murder and cruelty to children for leaving his 22-month-old son Cooper in a hot car to die. He was also convicted of dissemination of harmful material to minors and attempted sexual exploitation of children for allegedly requesting and exchanging sexual images and messages with an underage girl. Many were quick to convict Harris before the trial even started, myself included. In fact, the case had to be moved to a different county in order to find impartial jurors.
But once the trial was underway, it was clear that the prosecution’s case had more holes than actual evidence. Even though the jury convicted him, I believe there were a number of assumptions that were made after pretrial hearings that turned out to be totally inaccurate.
A big one, of course, was Harris’ online history. Before the trial, prosecutors gave the impression that they had a wealth of incriminating information regarding internet searches that Harris made regarding hot car deaths, animals in hot cars, living child-free, age of consent, and how to survive prison. However, once the evidence was presented at trial, some of it turned out to be fairly worthless.
Turns out that there was no evidence that Harris searched for hot car deaths, animals in hot cars, or living child-free. What he did do was receive a link to a Reddit message board called “Child Free,” that he responded to by saying “Grossness.” He also twice accessed a video that he was sent about a veterinarian discussing the effect of heat on animals, but there was no evidence that he searched for it, or that he even watched the whole thing. On top of that, police hired a consultant to examine Harris’ online activity, and the lead detective didn’t even discuss his findings when the examination was over.
Some of Harris’ online history even played in his favor. The night before Cooper’s death, Harris was doing online research about planning a family vacation with a child, and whether or not kids could go on a cruise for free.
Of course, some of the evidence certainly looked bad for Harris. The police consultant said that Harris had deleted his internet history shortly before the day of Cooper’s death, and a digital forensic specialist described Harris as “crafty,” because he “intentionally hid and deleted information.” Of course, deleting online history doesn’t make one guilty of murder. Sometimes, it’s done to make a web browser run faster or to get rid of other, non-murder-related things.
We did get confirmation that Harris did search for how to survive prison. Of course, for all we know, that was because he was exchanging sexually explicit messages and pictures with underage girls. The court heard from a woman who said she sexted with Harris when she was just 16 years old, exchanging sexual pictures of each other. Several other women who were over 18 at the time also testified regarding sexual relationships they had with Harris, including a paid escort. But several of these women even testified that not only did they know that Harris had a child, but that he would talk about Cooper and how much he loved him. So while these witnesses helped the prosecution when it came to the charges related to sending sexual material to a minor, they completely undermined their case for murder.
And that was really the biggest problem in the prosecution’s case. So much of their case was damaged as soon as it was put forward. The women who were supposed to help formulate this theory that Harris wanted to get away from his family ended up saying the opposite. The jury learned that Harris was certainly a sleaze who cheated on his wife, but they also learned that he told his mistresses that he wouldn’t leave his wife because he loved his son too much. The online history that was supposed to contain so many smoking guns ended up firing mostly blanks. And even when decent evidence was revealed, it was often buried in the middle of long, dry, technical testimony that probably put the jury to sleep.
Of course, in the end it didn’t matter to the jury that the whole case reeked of poor planning. The order of witnesses made no sense (to be fair, moving the case out of Cobb County may have made scheduling difficult). But the length of some of the questioning was unnecessarily long, resulting in tedious testimony that I could barely stay awake for. Prosecution rule number 1: ask just enough questions to get the information you need for your closing argument and then stop. If it’s not important enough for your closing, it’s not important. Yes, some questions are necessary to lay a foundation or establish an expert’s credibility before getting to the good stuff, but there was a lot of overkill in this case.
You also don’t want to bore the jurors who you’re trying to swing to your side. Over the course of two days, the jury had to sit through discussion of a 3D rendering of Harris’ SUV, and it hadn’t even been shown yet. And all this for a simulation, when the jury already saw the car itself! When the 3D imagery was finally shown, it wasn’t worth the wait, in my opinion. The whole point was to give the jury an idea of the proximity of Harris to his son when they were in the car, to demonstrate the likelihood that he saw his son when he got out of the car. But it was made clear to the jury that the placement of the car seat in the 3D images wasn’t exact, so what good is it? Not only that, but in the images, the car seat looks to be farther away from the driver’s seat than what I had envisioned based on earlier testimony. Some things are better left to the imagination.
But most importantly, I thought the prosecution overplayed the internet history. So much of that evidence was discredited, to the extent that even the stronger stuff was tainted in the process. The prosecutors knew the truth behind the Child Free message board and the video with the vet. They shouldn’t have used the Child Free message board at all, and the video with the vet was mentioned by Harris in his police interview, which the jury saw. It was important enough because it showed that Harris was aware of hot car deaths, but the prosecution didn’t need to harp on it so much, leaving the door open for the defense to poke giant holes in it. In the end, the evidence was so weak that they didn’t even use it in their closing argument.
When the trial started, I knew the defense had a decent amount to work with, because it’s difficult to prove a person’s intentions and all of the evidence was circumstantial. Still, the amount of evidence appeared to be overwhelming, and I initially expected Harris to be found guilty. After both sides rested their cases I truly believed Harris would — or at least should have been acquitted of the murder and cruelty to children charges. The defense did a great job in this case, but the jury ultimately felt otherwise. They convicted Justin Ross Harris on all counts. You can bet this will be appealed.
This piece was originally published after the prosecution rested it’s case, and has been updated after the jury found Harris guilty of all counts on Monday.
Ronn Blitzer is an editor at LawNewz.com and a former prosecutor in New York City. Follow him on Twitter at @RonnBlitz.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.