It was among the most potent pieces of circumstantial evidence released in the Justin Ross Harris investigation, convincing many in the public that the former Home Depot web developer purposely left his 22-month-old son inside a hot SUV to die.
Cobb County Police Detective Phil Stoddard testified in July 2014 that Harris visited a website promoting a “child-free lifestyle” weeks before his son Cooper’s death. The implication supported the state’s contention that Harris felt burdened by familial obligations and craved a life minus such responsibilities.
But on Monday, a prosecution witness testified that he directed Harris to the site as a joke. That witness, Alex Hall, a friend and co-worker, said Harris checked out the Reddit subgroup and, within two minutes, responded, “Grossness.”
The revelation was the latest, and perhaps most striking, rebuttal yet to the state’s initial case against Harris. It remains to be seen, however, whether Hall’s testimony will have any impact beyond the court of public opinion, as prosecutors have thus far avoided mentioning the child-free site.
Lead defense attorney Maddox Kilgore, on the other hand, is likely to keep bringing it up, building on his strategy to put the Cobb police on trial.
Kilgore first challenged Stoddard at a hearing in October 2014 about whether Harris’ visit to a child-free website constituted a motive, as alleged by the investigator.
“None of that suggests that he adheres to some philosophy of murdering his child, does it?” Kilgore asked. Stoddard replied “no.”
“No, but it sounded good at the probable cause hearing, didn’t it?” Kilgore said.
“It sounds good now,” Stoddard said. “It’s still a child-free site that he went to … He clicked on multiple times. Curious maybe.”
“Maybes. Maybes,” Kilgore said.
Earlier Monday, prosecutors focused on Harris’ double life, which, according to testimony, included an illicit chat with an underage girl and sexual liaisons with women and men.
It made for an uncomfortable morning for jurors, who were shown pictures of Harris’ genitalia and exposed to cringe-worthy testimony from a 17-year-old Alabama girl forced to discuss details of her online conversation with the former web developer.
The girl, whose identity was shielded by Cobb Superior Court Judge Mary Staley Clark, was just 15 when she met Harris, then 33, through the anonymous messaging app Whisper. He had responded to her post stating, “I love older guys.”
“It was a sexual conversation,” said the petite teen. The girl initially told Harris she was 18. He sent her a photo of his penis, which was introduced into evidence, prompting an apology from prosecutor Chuck Boring as he shared it with jurors.
Eventually the Alabama girl told Harris her real age. He was not deterred.
“He told me he wanted me to make him a naughty old man,” she testified. Their sexually charged dialogue continued for another 30 minutes.
They never met in person, nor did they discuss Cooper Harris, who was found dead in his father’s SUV less than a month later.
The defense had sought to block evidence about Harris’ sexual trysts but were rebuffed by Staley Clark. In his opening statement, Kilgore acknowledged his client’s flaws, saying he earned any shame coming his way.
“Ross’ sex life, no matter how perverse and nasty and wrong … doesn’t have a thing to do with the fact he forgot that little boy,” he said.
But to prosecutors, Harris’ double life helps explain motive. They contend he felt burdened by his wife and child and aspired to lead a life free of familial responsibilities.
Another young woman, Jacqueline Robledo, testified she and Harris met on Whisper in 2013 when she was 19 years old. She said she was coming off a breakup and found his attention “pretty flattering.” Soon after, Robledo said they had their first, and only, sexual encounter.
Although Robledo said they only hooked up once, they continued to chat online, mostly about sex. Harris later confided he had a sexual encounter with a man while on vacation, Robledo testified. Sometimes, Harris discussed his marriage.
“I know he was not happy,” she said.
At one point the messages from Harris stopped, Robledo said.
“He disappeared for a while. And he finally messaged me again,” she said. “And he was like, ‘Yeah, I was caught. I need to lay low for a while.’”
Harris occasionally mentioned Cooper, even sending Robledo a photo of his only child.
“And you responded, ‘So adorable. I love his eyes,’ ” Kilgore asked Robledo, who confirmed the conversation.
Harris’ response, according to Kilgore: “‘He’s the best!!!’ ”