MARIETTA, Ga. — The judge overseeing the trial of a Georgia man accused of intentionally leaving his toddler son in a hot SUV to die agreed Monday that the trial should be moved because pretrial publicity has made it impossible to find an impartial jury.
Justin Ross Harris, 35, faces charges including murder in the June 18, 2014, death of his 22-month-old son, Cooper. Police have said the boy died after spending about seven hours in the SUV on a day when Atlanta-area temperatures reached at least into the high 80s.
“This courtroom has not been a place of mild opinions,” Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley said, describing three weeks of questioning of potential jurors.
There was no immediate indication where the trial will be moved. Staley said she, the court administrator and attorneys will work together on that decision.
Defense attorneys argued that three weeks of jury selection have made it clear it’s is impossible to find a fair and impartial jury because of the extensive news media coverage of the case. Prosecutors countered that the fact that the defense already has agreed to qualify three dozen jurors for the jury pool proves that an impartial jury can be seated.
Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley held a hearing Monday on a defense motion to move the trial.
Defense attorney Bryan Lumpkin said the pretrial publicity has saturated the metro Atlanta county where the boy died and has resulted in a “pervasive, persistent opinion of guilt.” Lumpkin said that the coverage has led to a clear “atmosphere of hostility” against his client.
Although many potential jurors have said they want to be fair and impartial, many have said they believe Harris is guilty. Some have gone as far to say the defense would have to prove otherwise.
Under questioning by attorneys, some potential jurors cited what they believe are facts about the case but which are actually falsehoods, Lumpkin said. For example, he said, some jurors have said they heard Harris did an online search about children dying in hot cars, that he had made online posts about a child-free lifestyle and that he wasn’t emotional after he realized his son was dead. All of those are false, Lumpkin said.
Though they had hoped to be able to find a fair and impartial jury in Cobb County, the defense has concluded that it’s simply not possible, Lumpkin said. He urged Staley to move the trial.
Prosecutor Chuck Boring said the attempt to move the trial is nothing but defense strategy. He likened the defense request to that of a child who wants to start a game over because things aren’t going his way.
Out of a pool of 41 qualified potential jurors, the defense agreed to 36, he said.
“What has jury selection shown us? It’s shown us we can get a qualified jury,” Boring said.
Harris is from Tuscaloosa, Alabama.