MARIETTA — An acquaintance of the Harris family said he doesn’t think Ross Harris is guilty, and he prays the truth about the accusations that the father left his son in a hot car to die will be revealed soon.
Jason Shepherd, an Atlanta lawyer who attends Harris’ Marietta church, Stonebridge, said he couldn’t imagine Harris intentionally killing his son.
“Nothing I observed about Ross or Leanna would lead me to believe they would ever intentionally harm their child. Ross apparently hid a lot from a lot of people, including from his church family, but that doesn’t make him a cold-blooded killer,” Shepherd said.
Shepherd said Harris’ wife, Leanna Harris, has left her Marietta home for Alabama.
“I have seen Leanna at several services regularly since the bond hearing,” Shepherd said. “But … she has moved back to Alabama to be closer to her family. She has not been at church in recent weeks.”
Shepherd said Harris’ friends at the church support him.
“Since this tragedy happened, our pastor, David Eldridge, has asked the congregation to pray over this situation, asking for three simple things: that truth would prevail, that justice would be served and that mercy would be given,” Shepherd said.
Shepherd said he is skeptical of the indictment brought against Harris by a Cobb grand jury Thursday.
“This indictment says in one breath Ross intended to kill his child and in the other that he had no intention to kill his child, but acted criminally negligent, resulting in the death. I don’t know how any thinking person can look at that and say it makes sense,” Shepherd said.
Local attorneys say the prosecution is out to convict Harris of a crime any way it can.
Harris faces eight charges following the indictment, including child cruelty and dissemination of harmful material to a minor.
Kim Frye, a Marietta defense attorney, said the District Attorney’s office has given itself many of options to prosecute Harris.
“The state’s usually not worried about fair. They’re just worried about a conviction, and they want to convict him of something,” Frye said.
Frye said it’s not unusual for someone to be charged with multiple counts of murder.
“The state hasn’t decided which way they are going to charge him with murder, so they have basically elected three different options for themselves,” Frye said.
Harris is charged with malice murder and two types of felony murder.
Maddox Kilgore, Harris’ lawyer, tried to poke holes in the theories the prosecution might bring against Harris in the trial when he spoke about the indictment Thursday.
Kilgore said the charges of malice and felony murder contradict each other.
“The first count charges Ross with malice murder — that is that he intended to kill his son,” Kilgore said.
Philip Holloway, a Marietta criminal defense lawyer, said the definition of malice in Georgia law implies the person thought out the act.
“Under Georgia law, if a person is acting with malice it means they have acted with premeditation, deliberation and with an abandoned and malignant heart,” Holloway said.
Kilgore contrasted that charge with two counts of felony murder, one he said meant Ross Harris “intended — not to kill his son — but to maliciously cause him pain” and another he said meant Ross Harris “left Cooper there with full knowledge.”
Kilgore said he only has one defense.
“Ross doesn’t have any theories. He has the truth,” Kilgore said.
Holloway said Kilgore revealed the angle of defense he might use at trial during his statements about the indictment.
“What he was showing was part of his defense strategy. In other words, he’s showing that the DA is inconsistent in their allegations,” Holloway said.
Holloway said the eight charges against Harris ranging in severity could make it easier for a jury to convict Harris because there are many charges to choose from. Holloway said the jury might reason that if the jury didn’t want to convict Harris of malice murder, he should be convicted of felony murder.
“It makes it harder for him, because it gives the jury several things to hang their hat on if they decide not to go with malice murder,” Holloway said.
Harris’ case will now be heard in front of a jury in Cobb Superior Court before Judge Mary Staley. Reynolds said the next step in the case is an arraignment hearing, which should be scheduled for a date in the next two or three weeks.
After the arraignment, where Harris will enter his plea against the charges, Reynolds said motions can be filed in the case by either the DA or Kilgore. Reynolds said a trial date will be set after motions are filed.
Frye said whichever murder charge the state chooses to pursue during the trial, she thinks Harris’ history of sending explicit online messages and photographs to women, including one who was a minor, will play into the description of his motive.
“They want to smear this guy so that if we tell you enough bad stuff about this guy, you’ll think he wanted to kill his son,” Frye said.
Frye said the state may attempt to relate his sexual messaging habit with forgetting his son in his car.
“It’s easier to prove that he sent a text message than he killed his son,” Frye said.