The cost of sending Ross Harris to prison for the rest of his life was an extraordinary $550,000, documents examined by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show.
Taxpayers provided about $275,000 for the unsuccessful defense of Harris, who was convicted of killing his 22-month-old son Cooper by leaving him to die in a hot SUV in 2014. The defense team charged about half the usual hourly rate for murder cases and worked for free for a year.
Changing the venue of the trial from Marietta to Brunswick cost another $149,000. On top of that, Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds tapped his asset forfeiture fund to pay nearly $127,000 toward the cost of the prosecution, such as covering expenses for lodging and expert witnesses. “I thought I might as well use it for something good in this godawful case,” he said.
Expensive as the trial was, the Constitution comes before the cost, said Atlanta criminal defense attorney Buddy Parker, a former federal prosecutor.
“The costs that resulted from this case flowed from two constitutional principles – the First Amendment’s guarantee for the press to report about the facts of a case and the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the right to a fair trial,” he said, referring to the enormous publicity generated by the Harris murder case.
“There really should not be a price tag placed on justice,” Parker said.
Even so, the cost of the Harris trial shows how expensive our constitutional principles can be.
Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley Clark, for example, who made the decision to move the trial, billed taxpayers for $5,445 for lodging (55 nights at $99 per night) and at least $1,350 for meals and mileage, according to expense summaries she signed.
Staley Clark, who presided over the trial in Brunswick, declined to comment for this article, citing the defense’s intention to appeal the verdict.
Moving to Brunswick meant lodging at hotels and condos, a 600-mile round trip at 57 cents a mile for employees and meals at restaurants that otherwise would have been eaten at home. (The county’s per diem for meals was $52 a day.)
The three-person prosecution team was joined at various times by six others from the DA’s office, all on per diem. The overall case cost of $550,000 does not include the regular salaries paid to the DA’s team, to the judge and other court personnel, or to the sheriff’s department during the course of the trial.
The AJC obtained the records through Open Records Act requests filed with Cobb’s district attorney’s office, court administrator’s office and public defender’s office.
One juror said, ‘Rot in hell’
The unusual expense of the trial resulted almost entirely from Superior Court Judge Mary Staley Clark’s decision to change the venue.
After three weeks of intense jury selection in April, Staley Clark determined that Harris could not receive a fair hearing in Cobb.
The decision was a stunner: the court had only to choose a few more prospective jurors to fill out the pool from which the final 12 and four alternates would be chosen. But the judge said she was having second thoughts about five of the people she had qualified. The five said they had already reached conclusions about Harris’s guilt, and the defense had objected to each of them. But Staley Clark qualified them anyway.
One, a former 911 dispatcher, said the burden was on the defense to prove their client was innocent. Another, a nurse practitioner, admitted she was “going into it with a bias.”
Staley Clark asked the prosecution and the defense to compromise on the five, but the prosecution would only agree to dismiss two. DA Reynolds would argue later that agreeing to jettison all five would have given the defense too much of an advantage and concluded, “We couldn’t put ourselves in that position.”
The defense, meanwhile, said it shouldn’t have to use any of its precious jury strikes on people who shouldn’t be in the pool in the first place. The judge had urged the two sides to try to seat a Cobb County jury, but they were at an impasse.
Staley Clark then granted the defense’s motion to change the venue of the trial.
When announcing her decision, the judge reminded the parties of how hostile some of the prospective jurors had been toward Harris.
“I believe one juror said, ‘Rot in hell,’” she said. “I think another used the word pervert. … One juror even opined the defendant deserves the death penalty in this case.”
At the point that Staley Clark called it off, the jury selection process alone had cost the county $8,025, court administrator Tom Charron said.
‘These guys weren’t in this for the money’
At $275,000, the cost of Harris’ defense is likely the highest of any non-death penalty case funded by the county. But the payout could have been far greater – perhaps twice as much as it cost the county.
The Cobb circuit defender’s office typically pays private attorneys appointed to defend murder cases $100 an hour. But defense attorneys Maddox Kilgore, Carlos Rodriguez and Bryan Lumpkin agreed to $60 an hour for in-court fees and $50 an hour for out-of-court fees, said Randy Harris, who runs the circuit defender office.
“These guys certainly weren’t in this for the money,” Harris said.
The three attorneys mounted a vigorous defense, but they faced a relentless and methodical prosecution. The verdict: Ross Harris was guilty of all eight charges against him.
“Sixty an hour is nothing,” said Marietta criminal defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant of the defense’s compensati0n. On a federal trial, for example, defense attorneys are compensated $129 an hour.
Kilgore and Rodriguez were initially retained by Harris’ family to represent Harris for the probable cause hearing, which occurred about two weeks after he was arrested on June 18, 2014.
Defense bills for 3,408 hours
After the probable cause hearing on July 3, 2014, the defense team worked on the Harris case for more than a year without getting paid, Kilgore said Friday.
A GoFundMe page set up for Harris’s defense brought in $30,000, which was used to help pay fees for expert witnesses, including their travel expenses, Kilgore said.
The defense also tapped it during the trial to pay for the travel and lodging costs of five witnesses: Harris’ ex-wife Leanna Taylor, a close friend, Taylor’s mother, Harris’s brother and sister-in-law.
“All of that GoFundMe money was used for expert witness and investigator expenses and trial expenses,” Kilgore said. “Not one cent out of that account was used for legal fees. Not a penny.”
Final tallies from the circuit defender office show that Harris’ lawyers collectively spent 2,366 hours working on the case outside the courtroom and 1,042 hours working it inside the courtroom.
‘The atmosphere was so hostile’
Opinions vary on whether a fair trial for Harris was possible in Cobb. Certainly the outcome could’ve been no worse for the defense, as Harris was found guilty on all charges and given the maximum sentence — life in prison without parole plus another 32 years.
“It sounded like even without those five jurors, the atmosphere was so hostile to Harris there was just no way he could receive a fair trial in Marietta,” said Decatur criminal defense attorney Bob Rubin, who represented Dunwoody day care shooter Hemy Neuman, one of the decade’s most sensational trials locally. “So moving the trial did give him what appeared to be a more level playing field.”
Reynolds said he believes an impartial jury could’ve been found in Cobb but added the judge had no alternative.
Merchant, the Marietta defense lawyer who followed the Harris trial closely, agreed, but only if the state had made the concessions on the contested jurors.
“If they felt so strongly about their case, why did they feel they needed jurors who already thought (Harris) was guilty?” she asked.
Ultimately, however, it was Staley Clark’s decision to qualify those jurors that necessitated the move, Rubin said.
“She has the final say on who serves on the jury,” he said. “If she feels like, after reconsideration, that she let some jurors on the panel who could not be fair and impartial, she could remove them. She had the full discretion to remove those jurors.”