Justin Ross Harris trial: Jury to weigh fate of dad in boy’s hot-car death

BRUNSWICK, Georgia -- Attorneys Monday painted two portraits of Justin Ross Harris, the Georgia man who's accused of deliberately leaving his infant son to die in a hot car in a suburban Atlanta parking lot.

The portraits were not completely dissimilar.

In closing arguments, prosecutors argued that Harris left his son, 22-month-old Cooper, inside his SUV for seven hours in June 2014 because he was driven by his selfish need to pursue "escapes," which included extramarital affairs and sending texts to as many as six women that very day, including one underage girl.

But defense attorneys didn't dispute Harris's philandering, even admitting that the suburban Atlanta father was "hooking up when he wanted." They countered that Harris, 35, didn't need to abandon his life as a father because he was already pursuing relationships outside of his marriage, and they argued Cooper's death was a "tragic accident brought about by a lapse in memory."

Harris' fate is now in the hands of jurors, who will begin deliberations Tuesday morning after hearing five weeks of testimony. Although the boy's death occurred in Cobb County, publicity around the case captivated the Atlanta area and led Judge Mary Staley to move the proceedings 300 miles away to Brunswick, on the Georgia coast.

**Continuing coverage, here**

Charges against Harris, a web developer for The Home Depot who lived in Marietta, include malice murder, two counts of felony murder and cruelty to children in the first degree. He faces up to life in prison if convicted.

Some of the charges in Harris' indictment stemmed not from his son's death, but from Harris' alleged habit of sending sexual text messages to underage girls. Prosecutors made prominent mention throughout the trial that Harris was having illicit chats with several women on the day Cooper died. His wife Leanna, who testified at the trial, has since filed for divorce.

'Death and deception'

On Monday, Cobb County prosecutor Chuck Boring put Harris' liaisons front and center in his closing argument, using the defendant's own words.

"'I love my son and all, but we both need escapes.' Those words were uttered 10 minutes before this defendant, with a selfish abandon and malignant heart, did exactly that," Boring told jurors.

On June 18, 2014, the sweltering day of his son's death, Harris had arrived at his job in suburban Atlanta at around 9:30 in the morning, and left Cooper strapped into his car seat while he went inside to his office for work.

Later that morning, Harris and some co-workers left the office for lunch. Upon returning at about 12:45 that afternoon, Harris went to his car and opened the door to put away some light bulbs he had bought during the lunch break. The defense says Harris did not notice his son, still in the backseat. According to medical examiners, Cooper was likely already dead.

"This is a case about death, deception and a double life," Boring, the prosecutor, said to the jury. "The torturous murder of Cooper Harris, the deception all over his life and in this case with the police, his wife and everyone involved, and the double life that reveals his motive and the malice in this case."

Of key interest to the prosecution was the position of Cooper's car seat in Harris's SUV. Boring argued that Harris could see his son sitting in his car seat when he stowed the light bulbs.

"If this child was visible in that car, that is not a failure in memory systems," Boring argued. "Cooper would have been visible to anyone inside that car. Flat out."

He added, "If Cooper was visible, the defendant is guilty of all counts."

'He enjoyed being a dad'

But defense attorney Maddox Kilgore argued that Harris' sexual behavior had nothing to do with Cooper's death.

Kilgore maintained that Cobb County Police investigators only focused on details that fit the state's theory of the case.

"The state wants to bury him in this filth and dirt of his own making so that you will believe he is so immoral, he is so reprehensible that he can do exactly this," Kilgore said.

But he argued, "Ross was already doing what he wanted to do."

He added, "As far as Ross was concerned, he had a good thing going. He complained about sex in his marriage a lot, but he enjoyed the family aspect of it. He enjoyed being a dad."

Instead, Kilgore asked jurors if the law enforcement investigation was really a search for the truth.

"You have been misled from start to finish with the entirety of this testimony," he argued.