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Murder conviction overturned for Justin Ross Harris, who left son in hot car in 2014

Published: Jun. 22, 2022 at 9:24 AM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) - The Georgia Supreme Court has overturned the murder conviction of the Atlanta father who left his 22-month-old son in a hot car while he was at work, resulting in the child’s death.

Justin Ross Harris, 41, left his son named Cooper in his car in June 2014. Harris was supposed to drop his son off at daycare on the way to his job at Home Depot but did not do so.

Cooper was discovered seven hours later in the back seat of his father’s car outside his office in Atlanta. The temperatures that day was in the 80s.

Harris claimed it was an accident and blamed sleep deprivation. Prosecutors claimed that Harris wanted to get out of his marriage because he wanted to have sex with as many women as possible. Harris reportedly had exchanged sexual text messages with multiple women on the day his son died. One of the text exchanges was with a 16-year-old.

He was convicted of malice murder, cruelty to children and criminal attempt to commit a felony in 2016. Harris was sentenced to life without parole as well as 32 additional years for other crimes.

Harris filed an appeal for the murder conviction earlier this year. The Georgia Supreme Court released its decision on Wednesday.

During trial, the state argued Harris was a sexual deviant who intentionally left Cooper to die so he could pursue women he met online – some of whom were teenagers. The Georgia Supreme Court ruled the information should have been excluded because it was “needlessly cumulative and prejudicial.”

“From day one, we’ve maintained Ross was innocent and the strategy of painting Ross to be a philanderer or someone that was unfaithful to his wife had nothing to do with the love he had for Cooper,” said Carlos Rodriguez, one of Harris’ trial attorneys.

The court’s opinion also stated that the evidence used to show Harris maliciously caused his son’s death was far from “compelling” or “strong.”

“Today’s opinion ensures that hey, you have to have these guardrails,” Rodriguez said. “Someone, even like Ross, everyone has to have a fair trial and he didn’t have a fair fight.”

Amber Rollins is the director of KidsandCars.org, a nonprofit devoted to preventing child hot car deaths. She said Harris may have not been the best husband, but that doesn’t make him a murderer.

“This does happen to loving, responsible parents,” Rollins said. “We really believe criminalizing this, when it’s truly a case of a child unknowingly left, and there’s no reason to believe that person wanted to hurt their child, when it’s truly a case like that, criminalizing that actually furthers complicate our job of trying to help families understand that this could happen to them, and they need to do something to prevent it.”

Legal expert and trial attorney Bruce Hagen said the decision from the Georgia Supreme Court does not mean Harris is innocent nor guilty, adding that parents must remain vigilant to prevent these types of tragedies from happening.

“Let’s just hope this case can be retried,” Hagen said. “This is not to excuse the negligence of Ross Harris or any parent in leaving your child in the car at any time, let alone on a day like today when it’s so hot.”

“Today’s decision is great news but it’s not the end,” Rodriguez added.

The Office of Cobb County District Attorney Flynn Broady Jr. released a statement that simple read, “our office plans to file a motion for reconsideration in this case.”

Harris has not challenged his convictions for the sexual crimes he committed and will continue to serve time for them.

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