A Georgia man intentionally left his toddler son to die in a hot SUV 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, a prosecutor told jurors as the father's murder trial opened Monday.
Justin Ross Harris, 35, is charged with malice murder and other crimes in the June 2014 death of his 22-month-old son, Cooper. The case captured national attention two years ago after authorities revealed the father had been sending lewd messages to a woman as his son sweltered for seven hours in a parking lot outside Harris' metro Atlanta workplace.
Prosecutor Chuck Boring told the jury in his opening statement Monday that Harris sent an online message minutes before locking his door with his son still strapped in his car seat.
Boring said the message read: "I love my son and all, but we both need escapes."
"Hold this man responsible for trying to escape from one life into another by killing a child in one of the most horrible, unimaginable ways possible," Boring told the jury.
Harris' defense lawyers won't deliver their own opening statement until Tuesday morning. Superior Court Judge Mary Staley Clark recessed court Monday evening after a 90 minute delay. She did not say what caused it.
Harris' attorneys have previously called the boy's death 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.
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 lightbulbs 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."
He said Harris was unhappy in his marriage to the boy's mother and was obsessed with finding other sex partners. 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.
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.
The trial is being held 275 miles from the Atlanta suburb of Cobb County, where Harris lived and worked after moving from Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 2012. The judge moved the case to the coastal city of Brunswick because of pretrial publicity.
Harris faces life in prison if he's convicted of murder. Prosecutors decided not to seek the death penalty.
Boring said jurors will see that Harris showed little emotion when he was taken by police for questioning following the discovery of his son's death.
"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."