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Judge denies defense request to bar man's comments to police from trial in hot SUV death case


MARIETTA, Georgia — A judge on Tuesday denied a request from an attorney for a Georgia man accused of leaving his toddler son in a hot vehicle to die to bar from trial certain statements his client made to police.

Maddox Kilgore, a lawyer for Justin Ross Harris, had argued during a pretrial hearing that an officer who initially detained Harris the day his son died failed to inform Harris of his rights to remain silent and to have an attorney, and a detective who later interviewed Harris at police headquarters recorded additional statements after Harris had invoked those rights, Kilgore said.

The statements gathered by the first officer were made during the initial on-scene investigation, and the statements gathered by the detective were unsolicited responses to a statement by the detective, Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley said. Anything said in either of those circumstances is admissible, she ruled.

Harris faces charges, including murder, in the June 18, 2014, death of 22-month-old Cooper. Harris has pleaded not guilty to the charges, and his lawyers have said the boy's death was a tragic accident.

Police have said the 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.

Det. Jacquelyn Piper, who was a patrol officer in June 2014, arrived at a parking lot where Harris' SUV was parked a few minutes after hearing a radio call about a child who wasn't breathing.

Piper testified Harris was yelling on the phone when she arrived and held up a finger to silence her when she asked for his identification. When another officer asked Harris to get off the phone, he told the officer, "Shut the (expletive) up." That's when officers decided to detain him and they put him in handcuffs and Piper led him to her patrol car and took his cell phone, she testified. She asked him several questions but mostly in response to questions he had asked her, she testified.

Det. Phil Stoddard, the lead detective on the case, testified that he briefly introduced himself to Harris at the scene and told him they would talk back at police headquarters.

In a video played in court by Cobb County Assistant District Attorney Chuck Boring, Stoddard can be seen reintroducing himself to Harris and making small talk while he pats Harris down. Stoddard then advises Harris of his rights to remain silent and to have an attorney, asks him questions to make sure he understands those rights and has Harris read the statement aloud.

Harris invoked those rights during the initial interview and the detective stopped questioning him, Stoddard testified.

About an hour later, Stoddard testified, he and another detective went back into the interview room to advise Harris they planned to seek child cruelty and felony murder charges against him.

"At that time he looked at me and said, 'There was no malicious intent,'" Stoddard testified. He and the other detective thought that was an odd statement and began recording the interaction, Stoddard testified.

Kilgore also told the judge Tuesday that he was withdrawing a motion that alleged police had illegally eavesdropped on and recorded conversations between Harris and his wife at the police station. Kilgore said he had spoken to Harris and that Harris was waiving privilege for those marital communications.

Staley said she plans to set a trial date in the case at another motions hearing set for Oct. 12.

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