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.
Harris is the subject of the second season of the AJC’s podcast series “Breakdown,” which will follow the trial’s developments.