Trial of father in toddler's hot SUV death will be moved

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Posted: May 02, 2016 6:41 PM
Trial of father in toddler's hot SUV death will be moved

MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) — The trial of a Georgia man accused of intentionally leaving his toddler son in a hot SUV to die will be moved, the judge said Monday, granting a defense request to hold it elsewhere because pretrial publicity has caused potential jurors to form strong opinions about the case.

Justin Ross Harris, 35, faces charges including murder in the June 18, 2014, death of his 22-month-old son, Cooper. Police have said the boy died after spending about seven hours in the SUV on a day when Atlanta-area temperatures reached at least into the high 80s.

"This courtroom has not been a place of mild opinions," Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley said, describing three weeks of questioning of potential jurors.

She noted the "emotionality" of potential juror comments, with one of them saying Harris should rot in hell, another calling him a pervert and one saying he deserves the death penalty, which prosecutors aren't even seeking.

There was no immediate indication where the trial will be moved. Staley said she and the court administrator will talk to courts in other parts of Georgia about hosting the trial and will consult with the lawyers for both sides.

"While we're certainly disappointed, we understand and respect the court's ruling," Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds said in an emailed statement. "Whenever and wherever this case is set for trial, the state will be ready."

Defense attorneys argued it had become clear it's impossible to find a fair and impartial jury in the Atlanta suburb because of extensive news coverage of the case. Prosecutors countered that since the defense agreed to qualify three dozen potential jurors, it shows an impartial jury could be seated.

Staley held a hearing Monday on a defense motion to move the trial. After a lunch break, she urged lawyers for both sides to work together to try to reach an agreement on five disputed potential jurors, and to consider the cost and logistics of moving the trial. When they could not agree, Staley thanked them for their good faith effort and then granted the defense motion.

Roughly 250 potential jurors filled out a 17-page questionnaire that included questions about what they knew about the case. The lawyers and judge then began questioning them individually nearly three weeks ago. They questioned more than 80, qualifying about half of them to be part of the jury pool.

Many said they believed Harris was guilty. Some said they would try to put aside those thoughts and be fair and impartial, while others said it would be very hard for them to do that.

It's not surprising the judge decided to move the trial, but it's a bit surprising that the defense waited so long to ask her to, said Page Pate, an Atlanta-based defense attorney who's not involved with the case.

"I certainly think it's the right decision," he said. "In an abundance of caution, you don't want to risk a reversal on appeal."

While moving a trial is expensive — and that's certainly something Staley had to think about — it pales in comparison to the cost of retrying the case if the verdict had been overturned on appeal, Pate said.

Defense attorney Bryan Lumpkin had argued the pretrial publicity resulted in a "pervasive, persistent opinion of guilt" and led to a clear "atmosphere of hostility" against his client.

Under questioning by attorneys, some potential jurors cited what they believe are facts about the case but they were actually citing falsehoods, Lumpkin said. For example, he said, some said they heard Harris did an online search about children dying in hot cars, that he had made online posts about a child-free lifestyle and that he wasn't emotional after he realized his son was dead. All of those are false, Lumpkin said.

Prosecutor Chuck Boring called the attempt to move the trial nothing but defense strategy. He likened the defense request to that of a child who wants to start a game over because things aren't going his way.

"What has jury selection shown us? It's shown us we can get a qualified jury," Boring said.

Harris moved to Georgia from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 2012 to work for Home Depot.