Key question as Justin Ross Harris goes to trial: Will he testify?

» Listen to our podcast: "Breakdown: Mistake or Murder?"

BRUNSWICK — Cobb County police and prosecutors have said for more than two years that Justin Ross Harris deliberately left his 22-month-old son in a hot car to die. On Monday, they’ll have to start proving that to a jury as Harris’s murder trial commences in Brunswick.

Aside from Harris’s guilt or innocence, here are the biggest questions as we go into what is likely to be a six- or eight-week trial.

1. Should Harris testify in his own behalf?

Veteran trial lawyers offer differing perspectives. Prosecutors say they’re generally more than happy to see the defendant take the stand.

Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter: “You don’t see many help themselves. I’ve seen a lot more guys send themselves to prison than keep themselves out of it. … I’ve had cases where I knew I would be able to demonstrate a characteristic of the defendant — one was a child abuse case — and I knew if I could get under the guy’s skin and make him lose his temper, it would demonstrate how he lost his temper with the child.”

Marietta defense attorney Ashleigh Merchant:I would not put him on the stand. Early in my practice, I used to think that I should always put defendants on the stand. Then I got to the point where I had a couple of cases where (I faced) a good prosecutor. They’re going to be able to twist and turn what the defendant says. And in this case, Chuck Boring, one of the prosecutors, is an excellent cross-examiner. That would worry me.”

2. Who will be on the jury?

Forty-five Glynn County residents were qualified to serve on the Harris jury. The first order of business Monday morning will be for the lawyers to use their “peremptory” strikes to whittle that panel down to the final 12, plus four alternates. With peremptory strikes, the lawyers may excuse anyone for any reason, other than race or gender.

The lawyers have had a week off — plenty of time to consider who they want on the jury and who they want off, so this process is expected to proceed fairly quickly.

Many trial lawyers believe that jury selection is the most important phase of a trial because many jurors have already made up their minds before testimony begins. In Glynn County, the jury pool was not so overtly hostile to Harris as the jury pool in Cobb County was. (Which is why the trial venue was changed from Marietta to Brunswick.) But Glynn, like Cobb, is a conservative community.

3. How important are the opening statements?

Once the 12 are seated, the attorneys will offer their opening statements. These are supposed to be statements of fact, not arguments, so don’t call them “opening arguments.”

As with jury selection, many trial lawyers say their opening statements are critical. With their openings, the attorneys get to lay out their case for the jury without challenge or interruption. If the juror hasn’t made up his or her mind before the opening, it’s likely that he will afterward — and before any testimony is given or evidence tendered.

4. If Harris doesn’t testify for himself, who will?

His ex-wife is expected to be a star witness for the defense. Leanna Taylor divorced the defendant earlier this year, but she has said she never believed Harris would hurt their little boy on purpose. Also on tap: Harris’ brother, longtime Alabama police officer Michael Baygents, and Dr. David Diamond, a psychologist and memory expert who has studied “Forgotten Baby Syndrome” for more than 10 years.

Reader Comments ...

Next Up in Local

Katherine MacGregor, ‘Little House on the Prairie’ star, dead at 93
Katherine MacGregor, ‘Little House on the Prairie’ star, dead at 93

Katherine “Scottie” MacGregor, who played the villainous and gossipy Harriet Oleson on the television series “Little House on the Prairie,” died Tuesday, People reported. She was 93. >> Read more trending news  MacGregor died at the Motion Picture and Television Fund's retirement home in Woodland Hills, a spokeswoman...
Cops: Man shoots ex-girlfriend in head at Gwinnett business
Cops: Man shoots ex-girlfriend in head at Gwinnett business

A man showed up at his ex-girlfriend’s workplace Wednesday morning and shot her in the head, Suwanee police said. Nathanieo Pinkins, 30, was arrested the same afternoon, hours after allegedly shooting the woman at her job on Satellite Boulevard. The woman, who has not been identified by police, was transported to Gwinnett Medical Center in stable...
Gwinnett’s historic MARTA referendum is officially on
Gwinnett’s historic MARTA referendum is officially on

In the middle of Tuesday’s long, sometimes contentious Gwinnett County election board meeting, there was a moment that on any other day would’ve been, well, momentous.  The board formally called for a special election to be held March 19 — an election in which the sole question before voters will be if they want to officially...
Clayton County teen convicted of shooting, killing classmate
Clayton County teen convicted of shooting, killing classmate

A Clayton County teenager was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole for shooting and killing a classmate in 2016. The sentence came after a jury last Thursday convicted 18-year-old Stanley Dixon of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault and violation of the Street Gang Terrorism and Prevention Act in the fatal shooting...
Head of Georgia sobriety house arrested, facing fraud charges in Arkansas
Head of Georgia sobriety house arrested, facing fraud charges in Arkansas

Authorities have arrested the operator of a North Georgia faith-based addiction recovery facility after their investigation turned up a warrant for her in Arkansas. Starla Pope, aka Starla Occhito, was booked into the Lumpkin County Jail on Friday. That was two days after the sheriff’s office began checking into “possible criminal...
More Stories