A tragedy. A mystery. A front-page story.
From the moment the news broke in Atlanta, people haven’t stopped talking about it: Cooper Harris, 22 months old, was found dead on June 18, 2014, in the back of an SUV and his grieving father was devastated.
But then the story took a turn.
An investigation followed and, just three months later, Justin Ross Harris was indicted on murder charges. Harris’ lawyers argued for the trial to be moved because of the publicity. Since then, he has spent long days in a courtroom in the small town of Brunswick, Georgia, watching each side present its case in a bid to answer the question: Is Harris a grieving father who will forever live with the mistake he made – or a killer who was leading a double life?
Here’s how the Justin Ross Harris trial is unfolding, day by day:
Day 21 Friday, November 4
The defense rested after calling a total of 18 witnesses over 6 days, in a trial that has spanned five weeks. Harris waived his right to testify in his own defense. Defense attorney Maddox Kilgore told Judge Mary Staley that Harris understood there was no “do-over” and that this was “his only opportunity to speak in his own behalf.”
In prosecutors’ rebuttal, jurors heard a recording of Leanna Taylor – Harris’ ex-wife and Cooper’s mom – in her frst meeting with investigators. Detective Edward Stockinger is heard telling Taylor,”Your child is deceased.” Taylor’s response was, “Where is my husband?” Taylor said Cooper being left in a hot car was one of her “biggest fears,” even though it had never happened before. “Ross is never going to forgive himself,” she tells Stockinger.
The defense’s last witness was computer forensics expert, Scott Moulton. He testified Harris never searched for phrases like “what temperature it takes for a child to die in the car,” or “how hot it takes for a child to die in a car.” Moulton said there was nothing “suspicious” about Harris clearing the cache on his browser, or looking into a secure VPN given his job as a web developer. Under cross-examination, Moulton agreed that Harris searched for age of consent statute.
Both sides are expected to deliver closing arguments on Monday. The jury could potentially get the case that same afternoon.
Day 20 Thursday, November 3
Memory and attention expert Dr. Gene Brewer told jurors it was”absolutely possible” that Justin Ross Harris had a memory lapse after he left Chick-fil-A with his son Cooper and drove to his job. Brewer also said Harris could have created a “false memory” that he dropped off Cooper at daycare, brought about by habit. Under cross-examination, Brewer agreed that if Harris killed Cooper intentionally, the memory lapse theory would not apply. He also agreed that this case has some “unique” elements, such as the sexting, that differentiate it from other hot car deaths. “Have you ever been familiar with any other cases where the defendant said, ‘I need an escape, I love my son and all but we both need an escape,’ 10 minutes before locking him in a car?” asked Boring. “No I’m not familiar of any cases,” said Brewer.
Day 19: Wednesday, November 2
Ross Harris’ two closest friends took the stand to testify about his relationship with Cooper. Michael Simmons, who met Harris in 2010, told jurors Harris was a very proud parent. During cross examination, Simmons conceded he was unaware of the extent of his friend’s “risky” sexual behavior, as prosecutor Chuck Boring described it. “That is risky behavior right? Engaging in sexual acts with somebody you can’t even view or see?” Boring asked, referencing a text message where Harris tells a woman about his interest in anonymous sexual encounters. “I would consider that risky behavior, yes sir,” Simmons said. Later in the day, Harris’ friend Billy Kirkpatrick testified that Harris was a very “loving” and “doting” father to Cooper. Kirkpatrick told jurors that after Harris and his wife Leanna moved to Atlanta in 2012, she expressed doubts about her marriage and raised the possibility of divorce, given Harris’ habit of watching porn. Boring peppered Kirkpatrick with questions, trying to demonstrate that the friend lacked knowledge of Harris’ “dark side” – including Harris’ sexually suggestive texts with a woman the day his son died. “Did you know he said, ‘I love my son but we all need escapes,’ 10 minutes before he locked his child in the car?” Boring asked. “Did you know he continued that conversation about one minute before locking that child in the car?” Boring added. “I did not know that,” Kirkpatrick answered.
Day 18: Tuesday, November 1
For a second day jurors listened to Leanna Taylor. Boring pressed Taylor on her “odd” behavior during a police interview on the day Cooper died. Boring said her interview gave the impression her main concern was her future with Harris. “It appears that way as an observer. If you were inside me then it’s a little different,” Taylor said. Taylor revealed she had moved to Florence, Alabama, and was in a new relationship. Asked by defense attorney Maddox Kilgore how she felt about Harris now, she said, “He ruined my life, he destroyed my life. I’m humiliated. I may never trust anybody again. If I never see him again after this day, that’s fine.” Jurors also heard from family members, including Harris’ brother, sister-in-law and Taylor’s mother. Michael Baygents, Harris’ brother who is a police sergeant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, said that in his mind Harris “loved Cooper more than life itself.” Under cross examination, Boring asked Baygents, “You would agree that sometimes in general law enforcement, it may be the last person you expect who is somebody who violates a child and commits a crime?” Baygents said, “That’s true.”
Day 17: Monday, October 31
Harris’ ex-wife and Cooper’s mother, Leanna Taylor, took the stand as a defense witness. She fought back tears as she recalled her favorite memories of Cooper, a “very cute baby” who “loved to smile at everybody.” She described Harris as a “very involved” parent who never expressed anger or malice toward Cooper. Jurors spent 30 minutes viewing about 70 photographs of Cooper and Harris spending time as father and son, and Cooper, Harris and Taylor as a family. Some jurors smiled and laughed as they watched 21 home videos of Cooper interacting with his parents.
Taylor told jurors Harris confessed in 2008 he had a problem with pornography and on two occasions she found text messages on his phone that seemed to originate from other women. On cross examination, Taylor said she was oblivious to the extent of Harris’ “double life,” as Boring described it, saying that she did not know whether he was sexting with minors or meeting a prostitute. “It started off with one thing and progressed to something else,” she said. Taylor said that, before Cooper died, she would have divorced Harris if she found out he was having a physical affair. But when Boring pressed her on why it took her over a year after she had learned of Harris’ sexual behavior to file for divorce, she said, “I didn’t know what to believe.”
Day 16: Friday, October 28
The state rested after calling a total of 51 witnesses over 15 days. Prosecutors brought the crime scene into the courtroom when a 3D-scan expert took the stand. David Dustin showed jurors a scan of the interior of Harris’ SUV – including an image of a doll placed in the car seat, to resemble Cooper. Outside the presence of the jury the defense objected to the scan, calling it a reenactment, and questioned the placement of the car seat. Regardless, the judge allowed the scan to be presented before the jury. The defense began its case by calling Harris’ former real estate agent to the stand. He testified that Harris and his ex-wife, Leanna, had been house-hunting in the months leading up to Cooper’s death. Tensions rose when the defense and the prosecution argued, outside the presence of the jury, whether Detective Sean Murphy could testify about the contents of multiple search warrants he filed in the case. The defense maintained the information in the warrants was blatantly wrong, proving that investigators had jumped to conclusions. But Judge Staley sided with prosecutors, ruling that testimony relating to the investigators’ intent of obtaining search warrants was considered hearsay.
Day 15: Thursday, October 27
Jurors saw up close the SUV in which Cooper died. After the viewing, defense attorney Kilgore filed a mistrial motion, arguing that “jurors have been given free reign to substitute their vantage point for the evidence.” Boring called the car “the murder weapon” and argued that jurors had “to see where the defendant is sitting for those 30 seconds while he is messing around in his car that morning while his child was sitting right beside him.” Judge Mary Staley denied the mistrial motion. Later in the day, digital forensics expect Jim Persinger testified that Harris had deleted his Chrome web search history before June 6, 2014. In cross-examination he told jurors, “I believe he [Harris] is crafty. I believe that some of the methods that he used to hide the information, to delete the information was an intentional move.” Additionally, a sixth woman testified that she was sexting with Harris on the day Cooper died.
Day 14: Wednesday, October 26
Cobb County Police detective David Raissi confirmed lead detective Stoddard’s account that Harris uttered the phrase “but there was no malicious intent” as he “debated” why he was being charged with a crime. Raissi said he was taken aback by “the way” Harris was debating. “Specifically the wording, the vernacular which was language that was not of a layperson. As a police officer or a lawyer you understand … malicious intent or malice, that is pretty specific to certain statutes, so the words that he said caught my attention,” said Raissi. Defense attorney Maddox Kilgore pointed out that Harris’ brother-in-law works in law enforcement in Alabama and that Harris also had worked as a police dispatcher in that state. Urged by the state, Raissi testified there was no “malice” or “malicious intent” statute in Alabama. On re-cross, the defense pointed out there is no evidence that Harris researched the terms “malicious intent” on his computer.
Day 13: Tuesday, October 25
Sparks flew in the courtroom as the lead defense attorney cross-examined Stoddard. Kilgore highlighted multiple inconsistencies in Stoddard’s testimony during a preliminary hearing in July, 2014. Back in 2014, Stoddard testified that Harris searched for the term “how hot does it need to be for a child to die inside a hot car.” It was later revealed that a video titled “How hot does it get inside a parked car,” appeared on Harris’ Reddit homepage and he clicked on it. Citing motive, Stoddard testified in 2014 that Harris had visited a subreddit group named “child free for people who advocate child free living.” “As it turns out,” Kilgore said, “this child-free subreddit was discovered by Alex Hall, Harris’ friend. And Alex was the one that directed Harris to this site.” Stoddard agreed. Kilgore pressed Stoddard on the stand, asking repeatedly when he knew this was the case. Stoddard responded multiple times that he couldn’t “recall” when he found that information.
Day 12: Monday, October 24
Jurors again heard directly from Harris, when prosecutors played a second interrogation video from the night he was arrested. In the video, Harris tried to negotiate the legal elements of cruelty with lead detective Stoddard. He said Harris told him, “But there was no malicious intent,” after the interview room camera had been switched off. Stoddard also testified to what he smelled inside the car that day. “There was a foul odor inside the vehicle,” he said, “I associate that odor with death. It is that foul, stale strong odor that you associate with a dead body,” he said.
Day 11: Friday, October 21
For the first time, jurors heard from Harris – in his own words in a video shown in court – what happened on the day Cooper died. Lead investigator Detective Phil Stoddard questioned Harris hours after he was taken into custody. Harris told Stoddard, he was “careless” when he got in the car and that Cooper was “probably asleep.” “As I was driving down, when I looked to my right to change lanes, I thought I was seeing things,” said Harris. “Then I lost it. I pulled in. I couldn’t compose myself.” When asked about his marriage to Leanna, Harris told Stoddard, “We have a pretty strong relationship. We are about to find out if that is true or not.” Jurors also got a glimpse into Harris’ relationship with his wife, as they watched interview-room video of the couple meeting for the first time since their son’s death. In a surprising moment, Leanna asked Harris, “Can I ask you a weird question? Do you want to have more kids?” Harris tells her, “Absolutely, I want to have more kids. Just because we lost one child, it doesn’t mean we can’t have anymore. I want a family. We have a family.”
Day 10: Thursday, October 20
Up to this day, five women, including one minor, testified that Harris communicated with them on the day Cooper died. Again and again, jurors heard vulgar, sexually explicit messages exchanged between Harris and the women, along with graphic photos of genitalia. One of the women, Jaynie Meadows carried on a one-year relationship with Harris that started when she was 18 years old. She said they only met once in person, but nonetheless they fell “in love.” She testified that Harris told her, if it wasn’t for Cooper he would have left his wife. In cross-examination, defense attorneys produced a letter Meadows wrote to Harris, shortly after he was arrested, telling him she knew how much he loved Cooper and would never do anything to hurt him.
Day 9: Wednesday, October 19
As Cooper died inside his father’s SUV, temperatures peaked at 125 degrees Fahrenheit, according to heat transfer expert David Brani of Applied Technical Services, who conducted a test inside Harris’ car. At 12:45 p.m. — around the time Harris returned to his car after lunch – the inside of his SUV would have been around 98 degrees, said Brani. Medical examiner Dr. Brian Frist had testified Cooper may have still been alive at that temperature. The defense brought into question the accuracy of the heat test, drawing attention to multiple unknown variables.
Day 8: Tuesday, October 18
Jurors again were shown photos of Cooper’s body taken during the autopsy. Medical examiner Dr. Brian Frist described in detail how Cooper may have suffered in the time leading up to his death. “He would have experienced nausea. He would have had a headache, he would have become dehydrated. He may have had seizures. Even at his young age he would have had anxiety, because he’s been in a car seat before and he’s just strapped in there and he probably would have struggled as he was becoming more and more uncomfortable,” Frist said.
Day 7: Monday, October 17
Testimony from Cobb County police forensic computer analyst Ray Yeager, who examined Harris’ computer, revealed five links to the social media website Reddit containing the words “child free.” The state later called Harris’ former friend and colleague, Home Depot engineer Alex Hall. During cross-examination, defense attorneys produced a chat log in which Hall sent Harris a link to a “child free” subreddit. Hall told jurors it was he who had sent the link all along, explaining that it was a page advocating not having children. The chat log showed Harris’ response to the link was “grossness.”
Day 6: Friday, October 14
Former Atlanta escort Daniela Doerr told jurors that Harris paid her $125 for what she described as thirty minutes of “vanilla sex,” on May 31, 2014, two weeks before Cooper’s death. She remembered that Harris “was dumpy, short, had no presence about himself. You could tell he didn’t care about how he looked.” They had three sexual encounters that month, she said.
Day 5: Thursday, October 13
One of Cooper’s daycare teachers at Home Depot’s Little Apron Academy, Keyatta Patrick, testified that Harris seemed like a loving parent, who took pictures of his son every day. She recalled that about two weeks before Cooper died, she noticed Harris had stopped taking pictures of his boy. “I just thought it was kind of strange that he stopped,” Patrick said. “So I asked him, you don’t take pictures anymore? And he said no, because he’s getting older.”
Day 4: Wednesday, October 12
For the first time, jurors saw images of Cooper when he was still alive. Prosecutors showed video of Harris and his son ordering breakfast at Chick-fil-A on the morning of June 18. Cooper was balanced on Harris’ hip as they ordered their meal. The boy was alert and awake when he left with his father. Restaurant general manager, Charles Christopher Redmon, recalled telling police at the time, “Man, he was absolutely in love with his kid.”
Court was in recess from Thursday, October 6, until Wednesday, October 12, due to Hurricane Matthew.
Day 3: Wednesday, October 5
As several first responders took the stand, jurors saw disturbing photos and video of Cooper’s lifeless body lying on the hot asphalt of the shopping center. Harris appeared to cry and hid his face into his hands. Some jurors hid their faces and at least one juror cried, as the gruesome images were displayed on a courtroom monitor. “He had some scratches on his face. He had a shirt that had bicycles on it and little tennis shoes,” said Brad Shumpert, a technician with the Cobb County Police Department’s Evidence Unit.
Day 2: Tuesday, October 4
Akers Square Mill shopping center witness James Hawkins recalls how he attempted to perform CPR on Cooper after Harris pulled the boy out of his car. He broke down on the stand while describing how Cooper felt. “It was like blowing through a busted bag. He was gone,” he told jurors.
Day 2: Tuesday, October 4
Defense attorney H. Maddox Kilgore argued during his opening statements that Cooper’s death was not premeditated, but an accident. “What you are going to see here in this trial, is that responsible is not the same thing as criminal. The evidence will show that Ross loved that little boy more than anything. Cooper’s death was an accident. It was always an accident and that is what he told the police over and over again. This was accident. Not intentional,” Kilgore said. Then he claimed the lead investigative agency, the Cobb County Police Department, “made up” evidence.
Day 1: Monday, October 3
During the state’s opening statements, Prosecutor Chuck Boring painted Harris as a man who was living a double life. “You will see the deception and the double life. How he behaved and how he lied in this case,” Boring said. “The defendant intended to kill Cooper and he intended to do all the things that killed Cooper.”