From the start of deliberations, Ross Harris jury had little doubt: Guilty

BRUNSWICK — The Justin Ross Harris saga concluded Monday much as it began, with little emotion from the man who killed his little boy by leaving him in a hot car to die.

Harris’ reaction to the death of his 22-month-old son, Cooper, led police to tell prosecutors, “Something is not right about this case,” Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds said Monday.

His reaction to the jury’s verdict — guilty on all counts — was muted. It was hard to tell whether he was resigned or surprised, though a member of his defense team had said he remained optimistic throughout the trial, convinced everything would eventually work out in his favor.

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Instead, the jury found that he plotted and then carried Cooper's murder. Harris now faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole plus 42 years.

Harris left Cooper in a sweltering SUV for 7 hours on June 18, 2014, just minutes after the two had eaten breakfast at a Chick-fil-A near his office. Instead of driving his son to daycare afterward, Harris drove straight to work. The defense has maintained all along that it was a terrible accident.

But for the six-man, six-woman jury, there was little doubt. Harris, 35, was guilty of one of the worst crimes imaginable.

Jurors told the prosecution team in a post-verdict meeting that from the outset of their deliberations there was near-unanimity that Harris was guilty.

So why did they take four days to reach a verdict? According to Boring, “they thought there was a duty that they had to go through all the evidence and make sure they weren’t missing anything.”

Harris’ defense team was stunned by the verdict. They have been consumed by the case ever since Harris’ arrest on June 18, 2014, and, according to lead defense attorney Maddox Kilgore, “never once, ever … wavered in our absolute belief he’s innocent.”

But the public was never convinced, not after the jaw-dropping probable cause hearing in July 2014 that cemented opinions against Harris, eventually necessitating the change of venue to Glynn County. Until that hearing, many who followed the case believed Harris was being unfairly persecuted. As Boring said Monday, it’s difficult to accept that someone could be capable of such evil.

Indeed, few, if any, people who left a child in a hot car have been accused of doing so intentionally. Such incidents happen on average 37 times a year.

None had received the attention devoted to this case — fueled by lurid tales of sexual depravity that made it virtually impossible to feel much sympathy for Harris. The prosecution called several young women as witnesses who testified that Harris sent them sexually explicit text messages and photos in the years and months leading up to Cooper’s death. Harris continued to send such messages while he was at work and Cooper was dying in his car.

His former wife, Leanna Taylor, stuck by his side until filing for divorce early this year.

She continued to believe her only child’s death was an accident, and her testimony was crucial to the defense’s case.

Taylor reacted strongly to the verdict in a Facebook post, saying: “The problem is not the parent! The problem is a society that refuses to believe this can happen to them! Wake up! Accept it! And by accepting it you will be protecting your child!”

She said she didn’t care what people thought of her: “It does not matter! Your opinion will never bring back my son.”

Taylor was briefly considered a suspect by Cobb police. Lead detective Phil Stoddard indicated he wasn’t entirely convinced she had no involvement in her son’s death when he testified she was not a suspect “at this time.”

Asked by reporters about whether Taylor was still under investigation, Boring said, “We’ll leave that to Cobb County police.”

Entering the trial, Stoddard was viewed as perhaps the most pivotal witness for both sides. The defense seized upon inconsistencies between his initial testimony at the probable cause hearing and evidence that would later be disclosed, such as his claim that Harris had visited a site extolling a “child-free” lifestyle. (A friend from work had directed Harris to the site.)

There was also the video surveillance footage that revealed Harris was not, as Stoddard said in 2014, inside his SUV when he returned at lunchtime to drop off some light bulbs.

Jurors appeared to agree with the prosecution that those were minor discrepancies, not, as the defense argued, evidence of a rush to judgment. On Thursday, they asked to review that video for reasons few in the courtroom would have guessed.

“There were some interesting perspectives in there about some things … specifically about the trip back to the car at lunch, about what hand he used to open the door,” Boring said Monday. “Did he have the bag? There were some other things that really stood out to the jury. Having the bag of light bulbs in his left hand and using that hand to open the door and throwing the light bulbs in. That was one perspective put out there by a juror.”

For the defense, the jury’s decision amounted to a failure of the justice system.

“We’ve got the greatest system of criminal justice in the world,” Kilgore said. “It’s the envy of the world and we are so proud to be a part of it. Sometimes there are breakdowns in the system. When an innocent person is convicted, there’s been some breakdowns. That’s what happened here.”

In the coming months and years, “we’re going to get to the bottom of these breakdowns,” he said.

With tears forming in his eyes, Kilgore said the defense team, when leaving the jail after having lengthy meetings with Harris, would say, “My God, he’s really not guilty.”

Following Monday’s verdict, Kilgore and co-counsel Bryan Lumpkin and Carlos Rodriguez met with Harris in his holding cell. They didn’t discuss the verdict. Instead, they prayed.

“Ross didn’t say one word, not one word about what happened in that courtroom,” Kilgore said. “He talked about Cooper, he talked about how much he misses him … he talked about how much he’ll continue to miss him.”

District Attorney Reynolds said despite the victory for his side, “today is a monumentally sad day.”

“We didn’t go into the case hoping it’d be a malice murder, ” he said. “We didn’t go in thinking it’d be anything other than some god-awful tragic accident. But … brick by brick by brick started laying in front of us, the foundation was built to go with malice murder.”

“I believe justice was served today on behalf of young Cooper Harris,” Reynolds said.

Harris will be sentenced Dec. 5 in Cobb County.

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