Georgia boy's death in hot car was accident, not dad's intent: lawyer

Reuters News
Posted: Oct 04, 2016 12:04 PM

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) - A Georgia man accidentally left his toddler son to die in a hot car in 2014 but did not kill him intentionally in order to pursue online sex as prosecutors contend, his defense lawyer argued on Tuesday.

Justin Harris, 35, could be sentenced to life in prison if jurors find he meant to leave his 22-month-old son, Cooper, to die in a locked SUV outside his workplace in suburban Atlanta for seven hours on a sweltering day.

Harris drove straight to work with the child strapped in the back seat after they had a father-son breakfast at a Chick-fil-A, forgetting to take the child to daycare, the lawyer said.

Whatever the father's sexual appetites, "That has nothing to do with what happened to that little boy," defense attorney Maddox Kilgore told the jury in opening arguments of the murder trial.

After prosecutors portrayed Harris as a man obsessed with having sex with prostitutes and other women and texting to teenagers, Kilgore said he was a God-fearing man who was broken over the death of his son, knowing that he was responsible.

"Responsible isn't the same as criminal. It was an accident," Kilgore said.

Whatever his client's "sexual sins ... no matter how perverse and nasty, has nothing to do with what happened to that little boy," Kilgore said.

The lawyer said his client's grief over the death of his son was plainly evident, contradicting prosecutors' claim he shed no tears.

"He wept bitterly outside the view of the police, and he cried out to God in disbelief for what he has done," Kilgore said.

Harris faces a host of charges including murder and sending sexually explicit text messages to underage women.

Prosecutors on Monday had told the jury Harris led a "double life of deception" who played the role of loyal husband and doting father while also exchanging nude photos online and planning to kill his child so he could move on to a new life.

Judge Mary Staley Clark moved the trial to Brunswick, Georgia, some 300 miles (480 km) away, after concluding Harris could not get a fair trial in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta where his son died.

Leanna Taylor, Cooper's mother and Harris' ex-wife, is expected to be an important witness for the defense. She has told several media outlets she believes her former husband is innocent.

(Editing by Daniel Trotta and Alistair Bell)