MARIETTA, Ga. (AP) – A judge on Monday sentenced a Georgia man to serve life in prison without the possibility of parole after a jury found that he intentionally left his toddler son in a hot SUV to die.
Jurors last month convicted Justin Ross Harris, 36, of malice murder and other charges in the June 2014 death of his 22-month-old son, Cooper.
Prosecutors argued throughout the trial that Harris was unhappily married and intentionally killed his son because he wanted an escape from family life. Defense attorneys maintained that Harris was a loving father and that while he was responsible for the boy’s death, it was a tragic accident.
Harris did not testify at trial and did not speak at his sentencing hearing.
Cobb County Superior Court Judge Mary Staley Clark told Harris she thought about statements Harris made during conversations with police and his wife the day his son died about wishing to be an advocate to keep anyone else from ever leaving a child in a hot vehicle.
“Perhaps not the way you intended, you in fact have accomplished that goal,” she said as she gave him the maximum sentence.
Prosecutors had decided not to seek the death penalty, and Cobb County Senior Assistant District Attorney Chuck Boring, the lead prosecutor on the case, said the sentence Harris got was appropriate.
“I don’t think you could have any other sentence that would be appropriate when somebody’s been convicted of intentionally taking the life of a 22-month-old child — not only doing that but doing it such a painful and deliberate way,” Boring told reporters.
Harris’ defense attorneys did not present any evidence or make any arguments at sentencing. They also declined to comment after sentencing.
Cooper died after sitting for about seven hours in the back seat of his father’s vehicle outside the suburban Atlanta office where Harris worked. Temperatures in the Atlanta area that day reached at least into the high 80s.
Harris told police he forgot to drop his son off at day care that morning, driving straight to his job as a web developer for Home Depot, not remembering that Cooper was still in his car seat.
Harris moved from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to the Atlanta area for work in 2012.
Investigators found evidence that Harris was engaging in online flirting and in-person affairs with numerous women other than his wife, including a prostitute and an underage teenager.
Because the case had received an enormous amount of local and national media coverage, Staley Clark decided after nearly three weeks of jury selection in April that pretrial publicity had made it too difficult to find a fair jury in Cobb County, where the boy died, and granted a defense request to relocate the trial.
A jury in Glynn County, located on the Georgia coast about 60 miles south of Savannah, spent about a month listening to evidence in the case and deliberated for four days before finding Harris guilty of all eight counts against him. In addition to malice murder and felony murder charges, Harris also was found guilty of sending sexual text messages to a teenage girl and sending her nude photos.
Staley Clark sentenced Harris to serve life in prison without parole for malice murder, 20 years for a child cruelty charge, 10 years for sexual exploitation of a child for asking the teenager to send him lewd photos and one year each for two counts related to sexually explicit messages and photos he sent to the girl. The 32 additional years are to be served consecutively to the life sentence.