Stunned by a verdict none of them saw coming, the attorneys for Justin Ross Harris said Tuesday they found strength from a most unlikely source.
Lead defense attorney Maddox Kilgore said the defense team sat with Harris for nearly an hour after the verdict was read, the four of them praying and sometimes weeping. Harris had just been convicted in the murder of his son, 22-month-old Cooper Harris, by leaving him in a hot car to die.
“I want you to know we met with Ross in the back room afterwards,” Kilgore said in his first interview since the trial ended on Monday. “He wanted to talk about Cooper and how much he missed him. He wanted to console us.”
This was a portrait the defense team had tried to present to jurors through friends and family members, who spoke of a gregarious, fun-loving man who loved being a dad. But from the other side came a much different depiction, one so sinister that it convinced the six-man, six-woman jury that Harris was capable of almost unimaginable depravity.
Their conclusion was one that Harris’ team was still having trouble comprehending one day later. Emotionally drained and physically spent, they vowed that their fight was far from over.
“There were breakdowns in this process that occurred,” Kilgore said. “There were breakdowns in the investigation. There were breakdowns in the pre-trial phase, the motions phase. And there were breakdowns in the trial. It’s our belief those breakdowns affected the verdict.”
A motion for a new trial will follow. And then an appeal.
“We’re going to have our day before the Supreme Court of Georgia,” Kilgore said. “Hopefully at that juncture some of these breakdowns will come to light and we’ll have another chance at trial.”
Twenty-four hours earlier, all three lawyers said, they believed an acquittal was coming. Guilty verdicts on malice murder and the two felony murder counts were “the last scenario that we expected,” Kilgore said. “We thought the state had not proven the murder charges.”
Around 3 p.m. Monday, word came from the judge’s clerk that a verdict had been reached.
They sat at counsel table, nervously awaiting the jury’s decision, which would come some 10 minutes later. Harris, who faces a maximum sentence of life in prison without parole, turned to Carlos Rodriguez and asked about the young lawyer’s wife, hospitalized last week.
“That doesn’t surprise any of us at all,” Kilgore said Tuesday as Rodriguez fought back tears. “That’s the kind of selfless sort of person Ross is.”
Harris showed no emotion as the clerk read the verdict. Guilty on all eight counts.
Soon after, Kilgore, Rodriguez and attorney Bryan Lumpkin met with the 12 jurors, who commended them on their representation. “Y’all made us think,” they told the attorneys.
They appeared anything but conflicted, Lumpkin said Tuesday.
“There was not that sense of the gravity of having convicted someone of such a horrible crime,” he said.
One juror stood apart from the others, Lumpkin said. She didn’t speak and was eventually escorted out by a bailiff.
“The rest of them was just like a mix and mingle, basically,” he said. “That was really bothersome.”
“We had spent the last hour with Ross in a holding cell,” Rodriguez said. “Tears in our eyes. Seeing smiles on jurors faces was the last thing we expected see. But not a single question from the jurors about a piece of evidence. Not a single question about a witness’s testimony. No one really wanted to let us know why they had reached this decision that we never thought was really possible.”
Much was made by the state of Harris’ demeanor after his son’s death. His lack of outward emotion led Cobb police to view him as a suspect, and video of his interview with lead investigator Phil Stoddard, in which Harris appeared calm and collected, was a key part of the state’s case.
Kilgore said he understood why many people found Harris’ reaction odd or even unsettling.
“We tried to address it throughout the trial,” he said. “We tried to make it very clear … people react differently. We don’t know how we’d react under those circumstances. Ross didn’t know how he’d react.”
A lack of emotion also made Harris’ former wife, Leanna Taylor, a suspect, police have said.
“Look, she’s not guilty of anything and look how devoid of emotion she appears to be,” he said. “These are people in shock, in the depths of despair we can’t possibly imagine.”
Kilgore said he believes Cobb police are “dying to charge” Leanna in her son’s death.
“It’s absolutely, completely ludicrous to think she had any knowledge or involvement in Ross forgetting Cooper that day,” he said. “It’s nuts. But police didn’t like the way she acted, the way she answered questions. They didn’t like it that she wasn’t down on the ground, crying and kicking and screaming like they think they would’ve reacted.”
Leanna was on Harris’ mind after receiving the jury’s verdict, his attorneys said. So were his parents back home in Alabama.
“He spent a lot of time telling us what a great job we had done, how we had encouraged him over the years,” Kilgore said. “And how he was so blessed and encouraged that three men believed in him so strongly and cared for him and loved him. Moments after being found guilty of murdering his child he was worried about us.”
The four men spent about an hour together before Harris was transported back to Glynn County jail. He’ll be sentenced Dec. 5 in Cobb by Superior Court Judge Mary Staley Clark.
“It was quite intense in those moments,” Kilgore said. “Four grown men in prayer. In tears. It was something I’ll never forget.”
The tears had not abated a day later as the lawyers recalled their final moments with Harris.
“It was time to say goodbye,” Kilgore said. “The last thing Ross said to us was encouraging Carlos to spend time with his family and take his daughter to church. We wanted to demonstrate during the trial that part of Ross. And I’m afraid that we failed.”