Georgia high court rightly overturned murder convictions, legal experts say

ExploreGeorgia Supreme Court throws out Harris murder conviction in hot car case

The court again made headlines days after that decision by overturning the conviction of McIver, a prominent Atlanta attorney who shot and killed his wife from the backseat of an SUV.

In its unanimous decision, the court said jurors should have been allowed to consider a misdemeanor manslaughter charge at trial, not just a murder charge. This would have given the jury a chance to decide whether McIver was criminally negligent when he fired the shot, not just if he intended to kill Diane McIver.

The Georgia Supreme Court on Thursday overturned the murder conviction of Tex McIver in the shooting death of his wife. Bob Andres bandres@ajc.com

The Georgia Supreme Court on Thursday overturned the murder conviction of Tex McIver in the shooting death of his wife. Bob Andres bandres@ajc.com

The shooting took place on September 25, 2016, as the couple were returning home to Atlanta from their 84-acre ranch in Putnam County. After driving into town, McIver asked for his .38 caliber revolver from the center console because he thought they had driven on a Black Lives Matter protest, according to reports.

McIver, who had the gun in a plastic bag on his lap, was sitting behind his wife when the gun discharged. Her best friend, Dani Jo Carter, drove the Ford Expedition.

ExploreTex McIver’s murder conviction overturned

Former DeKalb District Attorney J. Tom Morgan said he agreed with the Georgia Supreme Court. In McIver’s case, Morgan said he wouldn’t be surprised if Fulton County prosecutors decided not to retry him, opting instead to accept a guilty plea to lesser charges.

“The court basically said there was very thin evidence to support the conviction,” said Morgan, who served as DeKalb’s prosecutor from 1992 to 2004. “As far as a new trial goes, I think that there could be serious negotiations.”

If McIver intended to kill his wife, he said, it was “the most bizarre decision” to pull a gun through the front seat of an SUV while his friend was driving.

“From the start, I always thought it was reckless,” Morgan said, but he couldn’t understand why McIver had been charged with malicious murder.

The jury acquitted McIver of malicious murder – which he had intentionally wanted to shoot and kill his wife, but found him guilty of felony murder, the underlying crime being aggravated assault – which he had intentionally shot on his wife.

Clint Rucker, the lead prosecutor in the McIver case, said he supports her work.

“Given the political climate”, he does not want to deconstruct the High Court’s decision as Fulton DA Fani Willis must decide whether to retry the case.

“I defer to the decision made by the trial jury,” he said.

Rucker also noted that the state’s case “was not weak to the jury” that found McIver guilty of murder.

In the Harris case, prosecutors used evidence of the web developer’s extramarital affair to establish the motive, saying he left his son in his car seat to die so he could get out of his marriage and sue. relationships with other women. They were allowed to present testimony showing that Harris slept with prostitutes and sent graphic texts and photos to minors.

Justin Ross Harris, sentenced to life in prison for leaving his son to die in a hot car, had his conviction overturned by the Georgia Supreme Court last week. (Kelly J. Huff/Marietta Daily Journal-POOL)

Credit: Kelly J. Huff/Marietta Daily Jou

Justin Ross Harris, sentenced to life in prison for leaving his son to die in a hot car, had his conviction overturned by the Georgia Supreme Court last week.  (Kelly J. Huff/Marietta Daily Journal-POOL)

Credit: Kelly J. Huff/Marietta Daily Jou

Justin Ross Harris, sentenced to life in prison for leaving his son to die in a hot car, had his conviction overturned by the Georgia Supreme Court last week. (Kelly J. Huff/Marietta Daily Journal-POOL)

Credit: Kelly J. Huff/Marietta Daily Jou

Credit: Kelly J. Huff/Marietta Daily Jou

Without such evidence, Morgan said it would be much harder to convince a jury that Harris purposely left his son in the back seat when he went to work at Home Depot headquarters that morning.

“The state has convincingly demonstrated that (Harris) was a womanizer, a pervert and even a sexual predator,” Chief Justice David Nahmias wrote in the court’s 134-page opinion. But he said the evidence “did little or nothing to answer the key question of (Harris’) intent when he walked away from Cooper”.

The court upheld convictions against Harris for exchanging graphic text messages to an underage girl, for which he was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Morgan said evidence of the extramarital affairs tainted the jury and should never have been allowed.

“Nahmias hit the nail on the head,” he said. “They proved he was a pervert, a womanizer. But that has nothing to do with whether or not he intends to murder his child by leaving him in a hot car.

Lots of people have extramarital affairs, the former prosecutor said. It doesn’t mean that they are thinking of killing their children.

In 2000, Morgan unsuccessfully tried a DeKalb woman who forgot to drop off her one-year-old grandson at daycare and left him in a hot car when she went to work. A jury acquitted the grandmother of a murder charge.

Harris’ ex-wife, Leanna Taylor, said after the ruling that Harris was a loving father and proud of Cooper.

“At the same time, Ross was a terrible husband,” said Taylor, who supported her husband during his trial. “These two things can exist and have existed at the same time.”

Former Gwinnett County DA Danny Porter said he thinks prosecutors are “walking a fine line” in introducing other wrongdoing as character evidence.

Pate, who agrees with both High Court rulings, said he thinks Cobb’s prosecutors are likely to try the Harris case again in hopes they can secure another murder conviction for the 79-year-old man, even without proof of character.

Given the jury’s difficulty reaching a unanimous verdict at McIver’s trial, however, Pate said he wouldn’t be surprised if a plea deal was reached on lesser charges.

“Given the man’s age, the fact that he is serving a sentence and the fact that a conviction at a new trial is far from guaranteed, I think you can just skip this one- here,” he said.

The court upheld McIver’s conviction for influencing a witness. For this, he was sentenced to 5 years in prison. Since this week, he has served 4 years and 10 months in detention, his lawyers said.

Longtime defense attorney Dwight Thomas said he was surprised Fulton County prosecutors secured a murder conviction against McIver in the first place. He always thought McIver’s conviction would be overturned on appeal, especially since the jury was not allowed to consider less serious charges during deliberations.

“When I learned the judge hadn’t given the jury that option, I thought that might be a problem,” he said.

— AJC columnist Bill Torpy contributed to this article.

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