Prosecutors have decided not to retry a Georgia father whose son died after he left him in a hot car, effectively ending the case against Justin Ross Harris nearly a year after the Georgia Supreme Court overturned his conviction on charges of malice murder and child cruelty.
The Cobb County District Attorney’s Office said it had conducted a thorough review of the case in the 11 months since the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the evidence of Mr. Harris’s sexual activities that had been presented at his trial was “extremely and unfairly prejudicial” and could have affected the jury’s decision to convict him in 2016.
Prosecutors had presented that evidence to bolster their contention that Mr. Harris had intentionally left his son Cooper, who was 22 months old, to die so he could pursue sexual relationships with women he met online. Mr. Harris’s lawyers said that he had merely forgotten that the boy was in the car.
“Crucial motive evidence that was admitted at the first trial in 2016 is no longer available to the state due to the majority decision of the Supreme Court,” the district attorney’s office said in a statement. “Therefore, after much thought and deliberation, we have made the difficult decision to not retry Justin Ross Harris on the reversed counts of the indictment.”
The district attorney’s office said that Mr. Harris remains convicted on other charges related to his sexual activities, including criminal attempt to commit sexual exploitation of children and dissemination of harmful material to minors. Barring a decision from the State Board of Pardons and Paroles, he will continue to serve his sentence of 12 years on those counts, the office said.
Mr. Harris’s lawyers said that a Cobb County Superior Court judge, Robert Leonard, signed an order on Thursday terminating the prosecution of Mr. Harris, nine years after Cooper’s death.
“Ross has always accepted the moral responsibility for Cooper’s death,” the lawyers, Maddox Kilgore, Carlos Rodriguez and Bryan Lumpkin, said in a statement. “But after all these years of investigation and review, this dismissal of charges confirms that Cooper’s death was unintentional and therefore not a crime.”
On the morning of June 18, 2014, Mr. Harris, a web developer at Home Depot, closed the door of his Hyundai Tucson and walked into work, leaving Cooper, whom he was supposed to have dropped off at day care, strapped into a rear-facing car seat in the back seat, the court said in its decision last June. Cooper, who was left in the car for nearly seven hours, died of hyperthermia.
According to the Georgia Supreme Court Ruling, Mr. Harris’s lawyers contended that he 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.”
But during the trial, prosecutors presented extensive evidence of Mr. Harris’s extramarital sexual relationships to support their theory that he had left Cooper to die so he “could achieve his dream of being free to further his sexual relationships with women he met online,” the Supreme Court said.
Jurors heard from a dozen witnesses about Mr. Harris’s sexual activities, saw hundreds of lewd and sometimes illegal sexual messages that he exchanged with young women and girls, and were shown nine photos of his erect penis, the court said.
The evidence “convincingly demonstrated” that Mr. Harris was “a philanderer, a pervert and even a sexual predator,” the Georgia Supreme Court said.
But the evidence did “little, if anything,” to answer the question of why Mr. Harris had left Cooper in the car that morning, the court ruled.
Instead, the evidence most likely led the jury to conclude that Mr. Harris 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,” the court ruled.
After the ruling last June, the district attorney’s office said that it disagreed with the decision and planned to ask the court to reconsider it. On Thursday, the office confirmed that the Georgia Supreme Court had denied that request.
In their statement on Thursday, Mr. Harris’s lawyers said that charging parents like Mr. Harris “further perpetuates the very common, but false, belief that only bad parents can have a memory failure resulting in a child forgotten in a car.”
“Indeed, throughout the course of representing Ross, we have learned that these tragic accidents often happen while the child is in the care of a loving parent,” they said. “Ross was no different. He deeply loved Cooper.”