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COLUMN: In Georgia, we use the legal system to stack the deck

The following article is an opinion piece and reflects the views of only the author and not those of AllOnGeorgia.

Since it happened, I’ve been bothered by the Ross Harris case. If you somehow managed to remain under a rock for the last two and a half years, Ross Harris is the man who garnered national headlines after he left his toddler son in a hot vehicle while he was at work all day. The little boy died a terrible death full of suffering.

I was bothered when social media convicted a man of his crimes within hours of the news hitting. People were calling for Harris’ head, a public execution, to skip a trial, before any statements were released to the media and well before any real information was known by authorities. The statement repeated over and over was, “I would never leave my child behind.” The man never stood a chance. Harris was tried and convicted in the court of public opinion before Cooper was even laid to rest.

I was bothered when the district attorney’s office toppled Harris with a pile of charges: malice murder, two counts of felony murder, first degree cruelty to children, second degree cruelty to children, sexual exploitation of children, and two counts of dissemination of harmful material to minors. The Cobb County District Attorney’s Office was hell-bent on making an example out of Ross Harris.

My personal opinion is that the sexual exploitation and the two counts of dissemination of harmful materials to minors should have never been included in the trial for murder. Is Harris a slime ball for texting teenage girls? Sure, but most members of the public have a hard time understanding that committing one crime does not automatically  mean you committed all of the crimes. If you read any comment section on any article about the case, you can see that this is true. A separate trial would have helped avoid poisoning the pool.

I was, however, pleased to see the court at least attempt to find Harris a fair trial by moving it some 300 miles away to Glynn County on the coast, despite the fact that it cost taxpayers over $500,000. But that didn’t stop the defense from having to vindicate a man who was already deemed guilty.

The very idea of ‘malice murder’ charge never sat well with me either. Georgia doesn’t have a “first-degree murder” charge, but this is the equivalent, meaning that Harris “did lawfully and with malice aforethought” cause the death of Cooper Harris. I’ve read a ton of articles, watched the testimony, and listened to an comprehensive podcast, and I don’t think the prosecution ever made that case. Just because people want to believe someone is a monster doesn’t make them a monster.

The felony murder charges are a little more complicated, but essentially, because Cooper died as the result of Harris committing two felonies – second degree cruelty to children and for the “cruel and excessive pain” caused by leaving the boy in the vehicle. Had Cooper survived, Harris would have been charged with two counts of cruelty to children (and perhaps other charges), but because Cooper died as a result of those two felonies, felony murder applies.

Doesn’t that sound a bit counter-intuitive? The notion that, despite not yet having a trial, you’re already guilty of cruelty to children so you’re charged with felony murder because of the other felonies? It’s an interesting, and backwards, way to stack the deck if you ask me.

So why am I belaboring these charges that have already yielded a conviction by a jury and a sentence of life in prison, plus 32 years?

Because Wednesday morning I read a story about a father in Maryland who also left his son in a vehicle in the summer. Wilbert Carter was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for leaving his daughter in a hot car for 16 hours after a drinking binge last year. His maximum sentence could be 10 years in prison.

Involuntary manslaughter in Maryland, and many other places, is listed as“criminally negligent homicide” is an accidental killing caused by a person’s criminally liable recklessness or criminal negligence”

The Baltimore Sun reports that “[The jury] acquitted Carter of more serious charges, including second-degree depraved-heart murder and first-degree child abuse resulting in severe physical injury with death, which carried potential sentences of 30 years and 40 years, respectively.” Though it may sound familiar, even these charges aren’t as serious as the ones Harris was charged with.

Just like in the Harris trial, family members and mothers of the children testified that Carter was a good father. Both fathers called the incidents grave mistakes. Both took responsibility.

But they saw two very different outcomes.

Another Georgia man who left his twin daughters in a vehicle which resulted in their death was only charged with two counts of murder in the second degree. Murder in the second degree in Georgia is when, in the commission of cruelty to children in the second degree, he or she causes the death of another human being irrespective of malice. The punishment for that crime is 10-30 years – so maximum 60 years, if convicted.

The same thing happened in New Mexico and the father was charged with second degree manslaughter. In Tulsa, a woman was not charged after leaving a 7-week old baby in the car, citing ‘excusable homicide.‘ And in Tampa, Florida, a father was charged with aggravated manslaughter in a similar situation.

I’ve said it many times over: Ross Harris is absolutely guilty of something, but I don’t believe that something is malice murder. He did some shady things, he belongs on the registered sex offender list, but serving justice in the death of Cooper Harris doesn’t mean putting Ross Harris in prison for 132 years. Besides, the justice system was not created so prosecutors could make examples out of anyone or allow judges to send a message.

David Diamond of the University of South Florida wrote an extensive article about a parents’ mind, memory, and how they can possibly leave a child behind: “None of those cases had evidence of prior abuse or neglect by their parents. I then spoke with many of these parents. I heard the gut-wrenching 911 calls they made after their child was found dead. I have realized that, in the vast majority of cases, this was not the act of uncaring or negligent parents.”

Jessica Szilagyi is a former Statewide Contributor for

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