Lawyer: Ex-wife to testify dad in toddler hot car death was "wonderful father"

BRUNSWICK, Ga. -- A defense attorney said Tuesday a Georgia father didn’t intentionally leave his toddler son to die in a hot SUV, and said he will call the child’s mother to testify that Justin Ross Harris was a good father.

Defense attorney Maddox Kilgore spoke during his opening statement in Harris’ murder trial. Prosecutors argue Harris intentionally left his 22-month-old son Cooper in the SUV in June 2014 as he sought to escape the responsibilities of family life and focus on sexual liaisons with prostitutes and young women - even teenagers - he met online.

Justin Ross Harris trial

Justin Ross Harris' defense team is presenting their opening statements, painting him as not an angel, who has committed "sexual sins" but not a criminal, in leaving his son in the car to die.

Posted by CBS46 on Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Tuesday, Kilgore admitted that Harris committed “sexual sins,” and argued that although there’s no doubt Harris is responsible for the boy’s death, he is not a criminal. 

“Ross’s sex life, no matter how perverse and nasty and wrong … doesn’t have a thing to do with the fact he forgot that little boy,” he said, according to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution.

Kilgore said Leanna Harris, the defendant’s ex-wife and the child’s mother, will tell jurors that prosecutors “got it wrong.” He said that though Leanna Harris will testify that her former husband was unfaithful to her in their marriage, she will say that the man “loved that little boy more than anything in the world.”

“She’s going to tell you he was a wonderful father – a woman who’s got every reason in the world to despise his guts,” Kilgore said.

Prosecutors say Harris intentionally killed the boy by leaving him for hours in a vehicle parked outside the father’s metro Atlanta workplace. Cobb County prosecutor Chuck Boring said Monday that Harris killed his son “in one of the most unimaginable, horrible ways.”

Boring said Harris shed “not a tear” when he was being questioned by police after his son died, and complained to officers.

“Is he screaming, ‘Can I see my son? What is going on here?’” Boring said. “No. He complains that it’s hot in the back of the patrol car.”

But Kilgore countered that Tuesday, showing jurors of video of Harris in a police interview room after the boy’s death, apparently sobbing and wailing, “What have I done?”

Harris grew emotional in court as his lawyer spoke, wiping tears from his eyes.

Attorneys for Harris, who moved to Georgia from Alabama in 2012, say the death was a tragic accident. Harris told police he watched cartoons with his son that morning, took him to breakfast at a Chick-fil-A restaurant and kissed Cooper while strapping him into his car seat. But Harris said he forgot to drop his son off at day care and drove to work, forgetting the boy was in the back seat.

Kilgore said he will call experts to the stand to explain how someone could forget a child in a car when “habit memory” overpowers an intention to make a change in their daily routine. He said Harris was planning to drop the child off at day care, and didn’t realize the fatal mistake until it was too late.

“He had every reason in the world to take him to day care – that was his plan. That was what he intended to do,” Kilgore said.

harris.jpg
Justin Ross Harris listens to Cobb County Senior Assistant District Attorney Chuck Boring’s opening remarks during his trial at the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga., Monday, Oct. 3, 2016.  Stephen B. Morton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool

On Monday, Boring told the jury Harris’ account doesn’t make sense. He said the restaurant is just over half a mile from the Home Depot office where Harris worked as a computer technician, and Harris parked his SUV by backing up between two vehicles - which would have required looking over his shoulder toward the backseat where his son sat. 

Later that day, Harris opened his vehicle to toss in a bag of light bulbs he bought during his lunch break, Boring said. After leaving work, he drove a few miles to a shopping center without stopping, the prosecutor said, though police later reported the SUV reeked from “sweat, a dirty diaper, the smell of death.” 

“The facts of this case only make sense if the defendant had planned on intentionally killing his son,” Boring said. 

Boring said on the day Cooper died, his father sent more than 30 messages on his phone “mostly to women, mostly about sex.” 

The month before his son died, Boring said, Harris met a prostitute for sex at a hotel. He had also been trying to persuade an underage, 17-year-old girl to send him a photo of her genitals. Harris was also charged for sending the girl sexually explicit text messages and photos. 

He faces life in prison if he’s convicted of murder. Prosecutors decided not to seek the death penalty. The case drew national attention and was so closely followed in Harris’ suburban home of Cobb County that a judge moved the trial 275 miles to Brunswick, on the Georgia coast.

Sixteen total jurors - eight men and eight women - were seated Monday morning to hear the case. Four of them will serve as alternate jurors, who will have a final say in the trial only if one more of the 12 main jurors are dismissed. The judge did not specify which jury members were alternates.