Shedding some light: New evidence expected at Harris hearing today
by Sarah Westwood and Haisten Willis
July 03, 2014 04:00 AM | 9272 views | 0 0 comments | 30 30 recommendations | email to a friend | print
MARIETTA — Police are expected to reveal much more about what they know in the Justin Ross Harris case today.

Harris, a Marietta man accused of leaving his 22-month-old son in a hot car for seven hours, will appear before a judge today for the second time since police charged him with murder June 18.

Kenya Jackson, manager of the magistrate court’s criminal division, said Judge Frank Cox will hear testimony from the officers and detectives who issued the warrant that night.

Officers will present all the evidence they’re willing to share at this point, Jackson said.

“Once the prosecutor gets done asking questions to the witness,” she said, clarifying that the witness, in this case, would be the law enforcement officers, “then defense attorneys have the right to ask questions, and I’m sure they’ll have plenty, just to see if the police department had enough to have warrants issued.”

Jackson noted the judge could still decide prosecutors don’t have enough evidence and dismiss the case at today’s hearing.

Harris, 33, told investigators he forgot to drop his son Cooper off at day care that morning before heading into work at a Home Depot corporate office.

By the time he began his commute home that afternoon, Cooper was dead. Harris claimed he only noticed his child was still in the back seat after he had driven several miles, at which point he swerved into the Akers Mill shopping center parking lot and begged bystanders there to help.

Harris was arrested and charged with felony murder and cruelty to children just hours after arriving at the shopping center, prompting public outcry over law enforcement’s handling of a father who appeared to have made a horrible mistake.

In the weeks since, support for Harris has waned as investigators have released pieces of evidence that suggest Cooper’s death was not an accident.

Hearing asked for by defense

Today’s hearing is the result of a motion filed by defense attorney Maddox Kilgore, according to a person from the magistrate court’s office who asked not to be named.

The hearing will determine whether officers had probable cause to issue Harris’ arrest warrants in the first place, the employee explained, as well as to consider the issue of his bond.

Because the case is still in the warrant status, the court official said Harris could wait six months to a year to be formally indicted.

If the judge feels detectives demonstrate they had probable cause to arrest Harris on charges of felony murder and child cruelty, he will transfer the case to Cobb Superior Court for prosecution, Jackson said.

Harris’ attorneys will raise the issue of bond at today’s hearing, another source tells the MDJ.

Harris’s attorneys will have the right to bring forth character witnesses who can testify during the hearing as to why the defendant should be released on bond, Jackson said.

Prosecutors will also have the chance to cross-examine these witnesses, whose testimony will be limited to reasons why Harris deserves a chance to bond out of jail while he awaits trial.

Kim Isaza, spokesperson for the district attorney’s office, said assistant district attorney Chuck Boring will present evidence today on behalf of the state.

,b>A ‘snapshot’

Joel Pugh, a partner in the Pugh, Barrett, Canale and Leslie law firm located just off the Marietta Square, said the hearing will give Kilgore a “snapshot” of the prosecution’s case.

“Defense attorneys file for these hearings in cases where the client doesn’t have a bond and it gives them a chance to prepare their defense ahead of time,” Pugh said.

Though Harris probably won’t be indicted for another six months to a year, Pugh said the prosecution will at least have to present enough evidence to convince the judge not to grant bond.

Harris is charged with second degree cruelty to children and felony murder. Reynolds has said felony murder does not necessarily involve intent. However, Pugh said he wouldn’t be surprised if there are different charges by the end of the day, which could include malice murder.

“What happens (today) depends on where the state believes it will head with the case,” Pugh said. “I’ve said from the beginning this is a malice case. If the state believes he did it intentionally — that he planned this and they charge him with malice murder — at that point they’ll have a decision to make about whether to seek the death penalty.”

He said the key for the prosecution will be to keep Harris behind bars without showing the entire case to the defense team.

“If I was prosecuting, I’d put up enough evidence to convince the judge not to give bond and I’d shut it down at that point,” he said.

Because hearsay is allowable in probable cause hearings, Pugh said one or two police officers will likely provide testimony of what evidence they’ve seen. Direct evidence such as surveillance camera footage is not likely to be brought forth, according to Pugh.

Pugh described himself as a close friend of Cobb District Attorney Vic Reynolds.

“If this were truly an accident, I believe I know (Reynolds) well enough that a consent bond would have been worked out,” Pugh said.

Pugh has his suspicions about Harris’ story, saying there would have been a strong smell in the car when Harris left work.

“Whatever evidence they choose, I think it will be shocking to people,” he said. “I’ve always felt like there is more to the case.”

Bond possible

Daniel Matalon, owner of A 2nd Chance Bail Bonds off Powder Springs Road near County Services Parkway, said he was certain Harris’ attorney would push for bond in today’s hearing.

But whether a judge will grant one in such a case is anything but certain, he said.

“Harris may not get a bond,” Matalon said. “Honestly, my gut tells me he’s going to have a hard time.”

That decision will be left up to the district attorney’s office, the judge and numerous other factors, Matalon said.

The key element in a judge’s decision to grant or deny bond is flight risk, he explained.

“The purpose of the bond is not whether he’s guilty or not guilty,” Matalon said. “Nobody is saying he did or didn’t do it. The bond is about guaranteeing his appearance every single time the judge asks him to appear.”

Matalon said the bonding process is much like applying for a loan at a bank.

Defendants must have a co-signer to guarantee the bond, he said, and put down a chunk of the total bond amount in order to walk out of the jail.

“It’s actually interesting, because the law actually just changed yesterday,” he said Wednesday, referring to a state law that went into effect July 1.

Under the new rules, Matalon said defendants must post 15 percent of the face value of their bond regardless of its amount.

The previous law required defendants to post 12 percent of any bond under $10,000 and up to 15 percent of any bond over that amount.

He said the law is still so new that the sheriff’s office and law enforcement needs to create awareness of its existence so people understand what sort of fees they could come up against.

“A bond like this, I would say, is going to be in the neighborhood of $100,000 to $250,000 if they gave him a bond right away,” Matalon said.

He noted the judge could deem Harris too much of a risk given the case’s high profile and decline to set a bond at all.

As the case has attracted increasing national attention, police have remained mostly quiet about the evidence they hold against Harris.

Chief John Houser, head of Cobb’s police department, issued a letter to the media June 25 urging the public not to “make conclusions based on rumor or suspicions.”

Houser said police “cannot share specific details of the investigation with the public,” though he said his department would release additional information at different points during the process.

In the two weeks since the incident, police have published warrants and statements that shed some light on why they say they believe Cooper’s death was the result of more than “simple negligence,” but they’re expected to present a fuller case against Harris in court today.

Most recently, investigators released search warrants that revealed Harris admitted to searching the Internet for information on child deaths inside hot cars and “what temperature it needs to be for that to occur.”

The warrants, published last weekend, indicate Harris’ wife Leanna also admitted to performing similar searches online.

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