By Rich McKay
ATLANTA (Reuters) - A Georgia judge granted a change of venue Monday in the murder trial of a man accused of intentionally leaving his toddler son in a hot car for seven hours while he exchanged nude photos with women online.
Citing intensive media coverage and negative opinions expressed by potential jurors, Georgia Superior Court Judge Mary Staley halted jury selection after agreeing that Justin Ross Harris, 35, could not get a fair trial in the same suburban Atlanta community where 22-month-old Cooper died on a sweltering hot day in June 2014.
"I hate to use vulgarity, but one juror said 'rot in hell,'" Staley said from the bench. "To say that some of the jurors' questionnaires showed a negative opinion to the defendant is an understatement."
The judge has not announced a new location or time frame for the selection process to start over.
Jury selection began three weeks ago with 500 people summoned for the high-profile case, more than 250 screened with a 17-page questionnaire and 41 potential jurors qualifying to be in the final jury of 12.
They were to decide if Harris simply forgot that Cooper was in the SUV and drove on to work rather than dropping him off at daycare or, as the prosecution contends, he wanted an expedient way out of being a parent in order to carry on affairs with other women and have a child-free lifestyle.
The prosecution is not seeking the death penalty, but with malice murder, child cruelty and other charges, including sending lewd pictures to underage girls, Harris could spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted.
The pervasive opinion against Harris has whipped up public emotion so much that "the public is foregoing issues of guilt or innocence" and instead was talking about bringing back "old sparky" – the electric chair once used in Georgia, defense attorney T. Bryan Lumpkin said in arguing to move the trial.
Prosecutors said they were disappointed but will respect the judge's decision.
"Whenever and wherever this case is set for trial, the state will be ready," Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds said in a statement.
(Reporting by Karen Brooks; Editing by Andrew Hay)