Judge agrees to move trial for dad in toddler hot SUV death

Updated at: 05/03/2016 3:54 AM
By KATE BRUMBACK

(AP) MARIETTA, Ga. - MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) — Acknowledging the intense and extensive media coverage of the case of a Georgia man accused of intentionally leaving his toddler son in a hot SUV to die, the judge decided it would be wise to move the trial away from the county where the boy died.

Questionnaires filled out by potential jurors show "pervasive knowledge" of the case and questioning of individual jurors during three weeks of jury selection confirmed that many already believe Justin Ross Harris is guilty, Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley said Monday. Harris, 35, faces charges including murder in the death of his 22-month-old son, Cooper.

Police have said the boy died after spending about seven hours in the SUV on June 18, 2014, when Atlanta-area temperatures soared at least into the high 80s.

"This courtroom has not been a place of mild opinions," Staley said.

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 the state 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."

Moving out of metro Atlanta should make it easier to find jurors who haven't heard as much about the trial and who haven't already formed solid opinions about the case, said Page Pate, an Atlanta-based defense attorney who's not involved in the case.

"While the case was certainly covered across the state and across the country, I don't think it has been as saturated elsewhere as it has been in Cobb County," he said. "I think that county has really felt the effect of the case and the coverage."

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 a defense motion to move the trial.

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, but others said it would be very hard for them to do that.

It's not surprising the judge decided to move the trial, Pate said.

"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."

Although 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 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 realizing his son was dead. None of that is true, 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.

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

(Copyright 2016 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)