The Georgia Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned the murder conviction of a Georgia father sentenced to life in prison after he left his 22-month-old son in a hot car, a stunning turn of events in a case that made international headlines.
Chief Justice David Nahmias wrote in an opinion that an "extensive amount of improperly admitted evidence" presented during Justin Ross Harris' 2016 trial affected the jury's guilty verdict. Some of the evidence included graphic images and details about Harris' extramarital affairs.
"Much of this evidence was at best marginally probative as to the alleged offenses against Cooper, and much of it was extremely and unfairly prejudicial. We cannot say that it is highly probable that the improperly admitted evidence did not affect the guilty verdicts that the jury returned on the counts involving Cooper," Nahmias said.
"If Appellant is to be found guilty of those crimes, it will need to be by a jury not tainted by that sort of evidence. For these reasons, we reverse Appellant’s convictions for the counts related to Cooper."
Harris was convicted of malice murder and other charges in the June 18, 2014, death of his toddler son, Cooper, who was left in Harris' Hyundai Tucson for seven hours in sweltering heat while Harris was at work.
The case and the trial gained international attention as prosecutors argued that Harris left the little boy in the car on purpose. They said Harris, who was married at the time, wanted to rid himself of parental responsibility so he could seek out sexual relationships with prostitutes and women he had met online.
Prosecutors told the jury that Harris had also sent sexually explicit text messages to multiple women and underage girls, including some that were sent the day Cooper died. Harris' wife, Leanna Taylor, eventually filed for divorce. She has never been accused of any wrongdoing.
On the day Cooper died, Harris was supposed to drop him off at day care before he went to work at Home Depot in the suburbs outside Atlanta. The pair grabbed breakfast at Chick-fil-A, according to prosecutors, and then Harris drove to work.
Harris discovered that his son was still in the car after he left work. Cooper's cause of death was listed as hyperthermia.
His attorneys argued during the trial that Harris forgot his son was in the car because he changed his morning routine.
In addition to malice murder, Harris was convicted of felony murder, cruelty to children in the first and second degree and sexual exploitation of and dissemination of harmful material to minors. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The Supreme Court upheld the convictions for exchanging lewd text messages and pictures with an underage girl, noting in the opinion that prosecutors "convincingly demonstrated that Appellant was a philanderer, a pervert, and even a sexual predator." However, it said those crimes did not "answer the key question of Appellant’s intent when he walked away from Cooper."
Harris is able to seek a new trial related to his son’s death. Carlos J. Rodriguez, an attorney for Harris, celebrated the news.
"We are thrilled that the Georgia Supreme Court has reversed Ross’s murder convictions, but make no mistake — this decision comes as no surprise. Inadmissible evidence can lead juries to wrongfully convict an innocent person. Today’s decision mirrors the very same points that we made to the trial judge, and we were right. I only wish the trial court had listened," he said in a statement.