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Murder Trial to Begin for Georgia ‘Hot Car’ Dad Justin Harris

Jury Selection To Begin In Hot Car Murder Trial 1:27

On the morning of June 18, 2014, Justin Ross Harris was supposed to drop his 22-month-old son, Cooper, at day care before heading to the Home Depot in suburban Atlanta where he worked in the IT department.

But Harris, then 33, didn't do that. Cooper was left buckled into the backseat of the family's SUV for seven hours on a day when temperatures soared to nearly 90 degrees. An autopsy found that the boy died of hyperthermia.

Image:  Justin Ross Harris and his son Cooper
Justin Ross Harris and his son, Cooper. Facebook via WXIA

What came next was a twisty and startling set of events: After murder charges were quickly filed against Harris, thousands of supporters rose to his defense, calling him a devoted father who'd made a terrible mistake.

Then came the motive. Harris might have seemed like a loving dad and husband, authorities alleged, but that was just a façade: He was in debt and wanted a "child-free life," as evidenced by the sexually explicit messages and photos he was sending and receiving with multiple women — including a 16-year-old — on the day his son died.

Jury selection in Harris' murder trial begins Monday, and looming over it is this question: Is he the cruel, callous murderer prosecutors have portrayed him as? Or did he indeed make a mistake — and are authorities unfairly using his personal life as a shaming tactic?

Support

On June 19, 2014, Harris was charged with murder and cruelty to children. Almost immediately, a petition appeared on Change.org that pleaded with Cobb County authorities to drop the case.

"This is a horrible accident," the petition read. "The father loved his son immensely. These were very loving parents who are devastated. Justin already has to live with a punishment worse than death. Sending what's left of his family in to bankruptcy to defend him against these charges is only bringing more hardship to a family that will never recover from the loss of a child. There is nothing to indicate that the father intentionally left his child in the car, so a charge of murder is not appropriate."

Although it was later withdrawn, more than 10,000 people signed the petition. And as details emerged of Harris' double life, his brother — a police officer from Tuscaloosa, Alabama — offered an even sharper criticism of local law enforcement.

"I'm very angry with them," he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I think they rushed to judgment."

Police: Hot Car Dad Sexting Day Boy Died In Car 0:56

Double Life

Harris' alleged double life was on full display in warrants and during a court hearing. Authorities said Harris, who owed $4,000 in credit card debt, had asked relatives how to cash in two life insurance policies — one for $2,000, the other for $25,000 — that he and his wife had taken out on Cooper.

And just four days before his son's death, NBC station WXIA reported, Harris twice watched an online video that showed what happened when an animal became trapped in a hot car.

But perhaps the most stunning allegation was Harris' use of message sites like Kik and Skout to pursue other women — and at least one teenager — as his son sat trapped in his SUV.

"Did he talk about exposing himself while he's chatting and messaging?" a lawyer asked Cobb County Detective Phil Stoddard during a probable cause hearing.

"Yes," Stoddard replied.

"Was he sending pictures?" the lawyer asked.

"Yes," the detective responded.

Harris' lawyer, Maddox Kilgore, fired back that his client's online life had nothing to do with the charges and that prosecutors were simply trying to shame him, WXIA reported.

"There's nothing per se nefarious about" the messages, Kilgore said, adding that there was no evidence showing that Harris knowingly left Cooper in the car seat.

"An accident doesn't become a crime because the results were catastrophic," he said.

More Charges and a Divorce

A few months later, Harris' wife of a decade, Leanna, called their marriage "irrevocably broken" and filed for divorce. Then, Harris was indicted on eight additional charges related to his online life.

A grand jury found that from January to May 2014, Harris sent sexually explicit photos and messages to three underage girls. He was charged with two counts of sexual exploitation of children and six counts of disseminating harmful material to minors.

DA On Hot Car Indictments: 'Evidence Led Us To This Point' 1:35

During a news conference to announce the additional allegations, Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds declined to discuss "any evidentiary matters" related to the charges, saying only: "The evidence in this case has led us to this point today."

Without providing details, Kilgore, Harris' lawyer, described the "electronic communications" in a statement as "consensual" and added that the indictment was a "calculated maneuver" designed to "inflame public opinion on the eve of jury selection."

"It is clear that these allegations are wholly unrelated to the accidental death of Cooper Harris," Kilgore said.