Justin Ross Harris, who was found guilty in 2016 of murdering his 22-month-old son Cooper by leaving him in the back seat of a hot car, had his conviction overturned Wednesday. The Georgia Supreme Court found that the trial court allowed improper evidence that may have clouded the jury’s judgment in the case.
In a 134-page opinion, Chief Justice David Nahmias noted that there was "substantial evidence" on both sides of the case during trial. Prosecutors presented a narrative that Harris wanted to kill his son so that he could be free of responsibility to pursue relationships with women he met online.
Harris’ defense put forward a case that Harris was a loving father who made a tragic mistake by going to work and leaving Cooper in the car, forgetting to drop him off at day care first.
"What was going through appellant’s mind when he left the vehicle?" Nahmias wrote, identifying that as the key question in the case. The judge noted "the state also presented a substantial amount of evidence to lead the jury to answer a different and more legally problematic question: What kind of man is appellant?"
Prosecutors from Cobb County, Georgia, flooded the record with evidence of Harris’s extramarital relationships, including sexual messages and images he allegedly sent to women and even underage girls, in addition to hiring a prostitute.
Nahmias wrote that the prosecution "convincingly demonstrated that appellant was a philanderer, a pervert and even a sexual predator," but that this "did little if anything to answer the key question of appellant’s intent when he walked away from Cooper."
What it likely did do was "lead the jurors to conclude that appellant was the kind of man who would engage in other morally repulsive conduct … and who deserved punishment," the chief justice wrote.
Nahmias ruled that much of the evidence – not all of it – was improperly admitted because of its lack of probative value and highly prejudicial nature.
"Because the properly admitted evidence that appellant maliciously and intentionally left Cooper to die was far from overwhelming, we cannot say that it is highly probable that the erroneously admitted sexual evidence did not contribute to the jury’s guilty verdicts," Nahmias wrote. "We therefore reverse appellant’s convictions on the counts charging crimes against Cooper."
Harris's trial attorney, Maddox Kilgore, told Fox News in a statement he is "very excited" by the ruling, which he said "comes as no surprise."
"The trial court allowed the State of Georgia unlimited use of bad character evidence, which we objected to all along," Maddox said.
"This is exactly how innocent people are wrongly convicted."
Maddox applauded Harris' appellate attorney Mitch Durham, saying he "did an amazing job of presenting the case to the Georgia Supreme Court."
With Harris's conviction overturned, prosecutors have the option of retrying him. Cobb County District Attorney Flynn Broady's office said in a statement that Broady intended to file a motion for reconsideration of the court's decision.