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Defence: Georgia hot car death is dad's fault, but no crime

Justin Ross Harris, left, listens to opening statements during his trial at the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga., Monday, Oct. 3, 2016. Harris charged with murder after his toddler son died two years ago while left in the back of a hot SUV. (Stephen B. Morton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool)
October 04, 2016 - 1:06 PM

BRUNSWICK, Ga. - A Georgia man charged with killing his toddler son wept in court Tuesday as his attorney told a jury the child's death two years ago inside a hot SUV is certainly the father's fault, but he committed no crime.

Justin Ross Harris was charged with malice murder and other crimes after his 22-month-old son, Cooper, perished in June 2014. Authorities say the boy was left for seven hours in his father's vehicle parked outside the Home Depot office where Harris worked in the Atlanta suburbs.

Maddox Kilgore, Harris' lead defence attorney, told jurors during the second day of the trial that Harris forgot his son was in the back seat because of a simple change in routine — he took the boy with him to breakfast that morning, though he usually dropped Cooper off at daycare before eating.

"Ross Harris is responsible for his child's death. It's his fault, no doubt about it," Kilgore told the jury in his opening statement. "What you're going to see here at this trial is that being responsible is not the same thing as being a criminal."

Prosecutors say Harris actually plotted to kill his son, hoping to escape his family responsibilities to focus on sexual liaisons he was having with prostitutes and women he met online. Harris is also charged with sending sexually explicit text messages and photos to an underage teenage girl.

"This case is about death, deception and a double life," prosecutor Chuck Boring said in his opening remarks to the jury Monday.

Kilgore told jurors they will indeed hear about "immoral sexual behaviour" and "graphic, filthy sexual talk" by his client. He said Harris "has earned every bit of shame that's coming his way."

But Harris was also planning a future with his wife and son — from planning a family cruise at the time of Cooper's death to talking with a real estate agent about finding a larger house in a good school district, Kilgore said.

Meanwhile, in the courtroom, Harris dabbed his eyes with a tissue and wiped a finger beneath his nose as he quietly cried at the defence table.

"His sexual behaviour isn't some kind of motive to murder the person he loved more than anyone in the world," Kilgore said.

The jury spent Tuesday afternoon watching a 90-minute police video showing Harris' reactions when officers first arrived at the parking lot where the father stopped and tried to help his dead son.

Harris can be seen pacing rapidly with his hands on his head, letting out a loud scream.

Cobb County police detective Jacquelyn Piper, who was a patrol officer at the time, noted on the witness stand that Harris was combative at first. When another officer asked him to get off his cellphone, Harris snapped: "Shut the (expletive) up. My son just died." The officers then handcuffed Harris and took his phone.

The video shows Harris telling Piper: "I was supposed to drop him off this morning and I didn't do it. I swear I dropped him off. I thought I did."

Then Harris is placed in Piper's patrol car and spends the better part of an hour in silence. At first he complains about the car being hot, and that the handcuffs on his wrists are too tight.

Later, when he appears to be alone in the car, he starts sobbing. "Oh my God! What have I done? My boy! My boy!"

Both sides urged jurors to pay attention to Harris' demeanour. Prosecutor Boring said the evidence reveals Harris showing little emotion. Kilgore countered that Harris is obviously distraught.

After moving to Georgia from Alabama in 2012, Harris settled in suburban Cobb County where he worked as a web developer for Home Depot. Superior Court Judge Mary Staley Clark moved the trial 275 miles to the coastal city of Brunswick, citing intense pretrial publicity the case received in metro Atlanta.

Harris faces life in prison if he's convicted of murder. Prosecutors decided not to seek the death penalty.

Harris told police he watched cartoons with his son that morning, took him to breakfast at a Chick-fil-A restaurant and kissed Cooper while strapping him into his car seat. But Harris said he forgot to drop his son off at day care and drove to work, forgetting the boy was in the back seat.


This story has been corrected to show that Cooper Harris was 22-months-old, not 22-years-old.

News from © The Associated Press, 2016
The Associated Press

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