Lawyers to debate evidence admissible in hot car death case

AP News
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Posted: Sep 13, 2015 12:09 PM

MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) — What evidence the jury will be allowed to hear in the trial of a Georgia man accused of intentionally leaving his toddler son in a hot vehicle to die is certain to be a central issue in a hearing set to begin Monday.

Justin Ross Harris faces charges including murder in the June 2014 death of his son, Cooper. No trial date has been set in the case, but Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley is set to hear pretrial motions at the hearing, which is expected to last several days.

Police have said the 22-month-old boy was left in the vehicle for about seven hours on a day when temperatures in the Atlanta area reached at least into the high 80s. The medical examiner's office has said the boy died of hyperthermia — essentially overheating — and called his death a homicide.

Harris was indicted in September 2014 on multiple charges, including malice murder, felony murder and cruelty to children. The eight-count indictment also includes charges related to sexually explicit exchanges prosecutors say Harris had with an underage girl.

Harris has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and his lawyers have said the boy's death was a tragic accident.

Harris' lawyers want a judge to rule that the three charges related to the alleged communication with an underage girl should be handled at a separate trial. Those charges involve completely different alleged conduct and a different alleged victim, Harris' lawyers argued in a motion, adding that those charges were included "for the improper purpose of interjecting evidence of bad character" against their client.

Defense attorneys are also seeking the return of a laptop belonging to Harris' wife, which they say houses photographs that could prove helpful to Harris' case. For similar reasons, they want police to return keepsakes Cooper made for his father that were seized from Harris' office.

"Such personal items demonstrate the state of feelings between father and son and are therefore relevant and exculpatory," defense attorneys wrote in a motion.

Harris' lawyers also found fault with the police investigation into the toddler's death.

They argue police didn't have probable cause for search warrants and therefore illegally searched Harris' vehicle, home, office, financial accounts, cell phones and other electronic devices. A motion asks the judge to throw out any evidence obtained from those searches.

They also argue that police didn't properly advise Harris of his rights before questioning him the day his son died and illegally eavesdropped on and recorded conversations between Harris and his wife at the police station. They ask the judge not to allow any of those statements to be used at trial.

Harris' lawyers also argue in several motions that certain provisions in Georgia law and their use against him in the indictment violate his constitutional rights.

Because many of these issues have to do with potential evidence in the case, some of which may ultimately not be allowed into the trial, Harris' lawyers have asked the judge to bar media and the public from the courtroom. The intense local and national media attention to this case means anything disclosed at pretrial hearings would be quickly disseminated to the public, which could jeopardize Harris' right to a fair trial and make it impossible to seat a fair and impartial jury, they argue.

The Associated Press and several other media outlets have filed a motion to intervene in the case and to oppose the request to close the courtroom.