SAVANNAH, Ga. — As attorneys take the final step in seating a jury to decide the guilt or innocence of a Georgia man charged with killing his toddler son by leaving him in a hot SUV, decisions about which potential jurors to send home will rest in part on answers they gave to sometimes uncomfortably personal questions.
Justin Ross Harris is charged with murder in the June 2014 death of his 22-month-old son, Cooper. The boy perished after sitting for hours in the backseat of his father’s vehicle outside the office where Harris worked in suburban Atlanta.
Harris’ attorneys have said the death was a tragic accident and Harris loved his son.
Authorities have said the 35-year-old father, who moved to Georgia from Alabama in 2012, was unhappy in his marriage at the time of his son’s death and was seeking relationships with other women. They also ended up charging him with sharing at least one sexually explicit text message and photo with a girl under 18.
During eight days of jury selection that ended Wednesday, Superior Court Judge Mary Staley Clark dismissed a number of potential jurors who said they knew about the case and had already decided Harris was guilty. That happened despite the judge’s decision to move the trial 275 miles from metro Atlanta to coastal Brunswick.
Defense lawyers also asked possible jurors if they had family members who watched pornography, and whether they had ever dealt with a cheating spouse or significant other. The answers could help them weed out panelists who hold Harris’ sexual behavior against him when weighing charges related to his son’s death, said Page Pate, an Atlanta defense attorney.
“It makes your client completely unsympathetic,” said Pate, who is not part of Harris’ trial team.
When court resumes Oct. 3, attorneys will narrow a pool of 45 potential jurors deemed qualified to hear the case to a final jury of 12 members, plus up to four alternates.
Prosecutors and Harris’ defense attorneys will take turns choosing people to dismiss from the jury pool. Each side gets to strike at least nine panelists, for any reason except for race or gender, before a final jury gets seated from those remaining.
Prosecutors will have their own considerations when it comes to which potential jurors to strike. Some in the jury pool may have a hard time accepting that a parent could be cruel enough to intentionally kill a child the way Harris’ son died, said J. Tom Morgan, former district attorney for DeKalb County.
He should know. In 2000, Morgan prosecuted a woman on involuntary manslaughter charges after her 2-year-old grandson died after being left in a hot car. As in Harris’ case, the woman said she forgot to drop off the child at day care and mistakenly left her in the car while the grandmother was at work. A DeKalb County jury acquitted the woman.
“Picking jurors who are willing to accept that a man would intentionally leave his child in a parked car to murder his child, it’s a tough, common-sense thing to overcome,” Morgan said.