Thursday, May 9, 2013 09:06 am
A house filled with horror
Testimony starts in Harris murder trial
The first sign of trouble came after school, when Seaton Landstrom, now 14, rode to the Gee home to show his new bicycle to Dillen Constant and his half-brother Austin Gee.
There was blood on the porch and door of the Gee home that afternoon on Sept. 21, 2009 in the tiny town of Beason in Logan County, about 40 miles northeast of Springfield. The door was open about a foot, Landstrom recalled from the witness stand on Wednesday, the first day of testimony in the murder trial of Christopher Harris.
“I yelled ‘Is anybody home?’” Landstrom testified. “I kind of paused for a minute and thought of what to do. I was kind of scared.”
Landstrom jumped on his bike and pedaled to the home of Nicole Gee, the adult daughter of Raymond “Rick” Gee, who was father to Austin and stepfather to Dillen. Nicole lived on the opposite side of town, but the ride was less than a mile. Landstrom was “pale white” when he arrived, testified Adam Koehler, who was installing carpet at Nicole’s house with his grandfather William “Pudge” Koehler, who was married to Rick Gee’s mother.
There’s something wrong at Dillen’s house, Landstrom told Pudge and Adam. You’d better go down there.
The two men got in Pudge’s pickup, with Nicole following a few minutes later. Adam told Pudge to stay put while he went inside. He saw a knife at the bottom of the porch and spots of blood on the steps. They raise chickens, Pudge told him. Maybe they were butchering some.
The house was dark. Adam called out for Rick and Austin as he made his way into a hallway. Feeling along a wall, he found a light switch. So it was that the first body was found.
Rick Gee was lying face down on the hallway floor in a pool of blood, quite obviously dead. He had suffered at least 13 blows to his head with a tire iron, prosecutors say.
Adam proceeded no further. He went outside and told Pudge to call 911. Meanwhile, Nicole arrived. She insisted that Pudge go in the house while they waited for police. Pudge kept going after spotting Rick Gee. Why, asked Logan County state’s attorney Jonathan Wright.
“There was four more people in there,” Pudge answered. And he found them all.
Clad in shorts and nothing else, Dillen, 14, was on his right side, lying in a fetal position, near the entrance to the home’s master bedroom. Ruth Gee, his mother, was also in the bedroom, about three feet away in what appeared to be a nightgown. Austin, 11, was in an adjoining bathroom, facedown and wearing only underwear. Justina Constant, 16, was on her bed. And Tabitha Gee, just three years old, was in a pool of blood at the entrance to her bedroom.
“I went to my knees,” Pudge testified. “Adam took ahold of me and took me out of there.”
Logan County sheriff’s corporal Michael Block and Illinois State Trooper Paul Hennessy entered the home with guns drawn when they arrived 12 minutes after getting the call. One by one, they saw the same horrors as Pudge had encountered.
Then, a miracle. While Hennessy was looking into Justina’s room, Block saw something from the corner of his eye.
“Oh shit, Paul – she moved!” Block exclaimed.
Tabitha, who had suffered two tire iron blows to her head more than fifteen hours earlier, was still alive. Doctors would later remove a section of the toddler’s fractured skull to allow room for her brain to swell. Her eyes were swollen shut, and she couldn’t talk. But she had enough strength to move an arm.
Hennessy holstered his gun and rushed to the child’s side. Kneeling down, he felt her back to see if she was breathing.
“I was going to check for a pulse, but with her condition, I didn’t want to check in her neck area,” said Hennessy, who swallowed hard on the stand several times as he told the story to the jury. “I asked her, ‘Honey, are you OK? Can you hear me?’ And she groaned.”
Hennessy and Block had not yet thoroughly checked the home for perpetrators, but this couldn’t wait, and so they summoned paramedics who were waiting outside. When one of the paramedics set a bag down upon reaching Tabitha, Hennessy spoke up.
“I told him she’s alive, you need to get her out of here,” the trooper testified. “He scooped her up just like a baby.”
Star witness gets deal
The survival of Tabitha Gee was the sole bright spot during a grim day in the courtroom.
Christopher Harris, who had smiled several times during jury selection, appeared somber throughout the day as prosecutors painted him a monster. While he had made some regrettable decisions, Peter Naylor, one of the defendant’s two attorneys, said during opening statements that his client had stumbled across the massacre when visiting the home to buy marijuana after a night spent drinking and drugging with his brother Jason. Dillen, Naylor told jurors, had killed his family, and Harris killed the teen in self defense.
“Dillen came at him,” Naylor said. “He acted in the only way he felt that he could at that moment.”
Harris, Naylor said, was checking on the victims when Dillen attacked. What about Tabitha? The toddler was in a closet, Naylor explained, and it was dark in the house.
Physical evidence points to Dillen, Naylor said, citing DNA found under Rick’s fingernails that could not have come from anyone in the house that night except for Dillen.
Dillen, Naylor said, was a troubled youth who needed medication that he wasn’t getting – in pretrial hearings, the sides have said that Dillen had been diagnosed with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder. Dillen was physically strong, a member of his school’s wrestling team who helped out with his dad’s construction company, the attorney told jurors.
“He was not a boy any longer,” Naylor said. “He was a young man.”
Naylor, who has never before tried a criminal case, drew an objection, unusual during opening statements, when he said that the Gees had nailed windows shut after Dillen snuck out of the house. Shortly before talking about the window, Naylor said that Dillen had once stolen a razor knife, which drew frowns from prosecutors. In pretrial hearings, Circuit Court Judge Scott Drazewski had ruled that the defense could say that Dillen had once slashed seats on a school bus, but they could not say that he did it with a razor knife stolen from school.
“We have multiple objections to multiple things that have now been said by defense counsel,” assistant attorney general Michael Atterberry told the judge after Drazewski had sent the jury out of the courtroom. “Nailing the windows shut, it was straight out of whole cloth. … The people who could prove it up are deceased. There were other statements (made by Naylor) besides nailing the windows shut.”
The judge ruled that Naylor could indicate to the jury what he believed evidence would show as opposed to making definitive statements. But the prosecution forfeited its right to object to any areas of Naylor’s statement that might have been inappropriate because no objections were made at the time the defense attorney may have gone astray, ruled the judge without mentioning the razor knife.
The defense intends to call Craig Anderson, a psychologist who has studied the effects of video games depicting violence, which Dillen was known to play. The judge, however, has ruled that Anderson can’t say that violent video games cause violence. He can, however, say that there is a correlation between violent behavior and violent video games. Whether the jury will discern the difference is anybody’s guess.
But Anderson’s value to the defense isn’t limited to expertise on video games, and that became clear during Naylor’s opening statement. Anderson will be allowed to testify about risk factors aside from video games that can precipitate violence, and there were plenty in Dillen’s life. He had bad grades, a low IQ, behavior problems and a home life that was far from ideal, Naylor told the jury.
“He stole money from his parents, he stole pornography from his parents,” Naylor said. “Dillen lived in a home with a father who sold drugs. Dillen lived in a home with parents who had an active swinging lifestyle. They would go into their bedroom and lock the door and engage in that behavior with kids in the house. They would do drugs in the house around the kids.”
In the parlance of criminal defense, it’s called dirtying up the victim. It will likely take considerable mud, however, to persuade the jury that the Gee family had it coming.
“Thirteen, eight, 30 and two,” Wright, the state’s attorney, said as he began his opening statement by reciting the number of tire iron blows to the head of each victim, with Ruth and Rick each receiving 13.
Harris, Wright said, had plenty of chances to come clean. But when police initially questioned him, he suggested other suspects – but never Dillen – even though he was eventually forced to admit he’d been in the house after investigators found his bloody palm print on a bathroom counter above Austin’s body.
Time and again as investigators’ suspicions grew, Harris denied that he was in Beason the night of the massacre, Wright told the jury. But the defendant now admits that was a lie.
Jason Harris, the defendant’s brother, will testify for the prosecution in exchange for a ten-year sentence for concealment of homicide, obstruction of justice and unlawful delivery of a controlled substance, Wright said. It’s not clear what the latter count involves, but Jason Harris will testify that he and his brother snorted cocaine shortly before going to the Gee home. With time off for good behavior, it amounts to a ten-year sentence, and so Jason Harris, who has been in jail since 2009, would be going home in slightly more than six years while his brother, 34, faces the prospect of dying in prison.
Wright acknowledged that Jason Harris is an unlikeable witness with a 2007 perjury conviction. But his tale, the prosecutor says, is genuine.
Jason Harris says that he waited outside while his brother took a tire iron into the house, saying that he wanted to talk to Justina, Ruth Gee’s 16-year-old daughter (charges of attempted sexual assault on Justina against Christopher Harris were dropped last week). A few moments after his brother entered the house, Jason Harris heard a thud and a woman’s scream, Wright told jurors. Then Dillen Constant dove headfirst out of Justina’s bedroom window.
“He came into the driveway and said ‘Bubba, Bubba’ – that’s Jason’s nickname,” the prosecutor said. “Jason Harris didn’t answer, didn’t respond. Dillen went back into the residence.”
Shortly afterward, Dillen emerged again and headed toward the back yard, but Christopher Harris, armed with a tire iron, struck him five or six times, the prosecutor told jurors, while the teen implored “Chris, stop! Chris, stop!”
Dillen died hard, the prosecutor said. At some point, he suffered a knuckle injury that would have prevented him from holding a tire iron or anything else. After being beaten with a tire iron, the teen picked himself up and went back into the house, where the defendant had gone, Wright said. Jason Harris saw his brother emerge shortly afterward, the prosecutor told the jury. He was holding a tire iron.
“He looked up into the sky, then he turned around and went back in,” the prosecutor said. “Jason Harris will testify that it sounded like the house was coming apart. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud. Thud.”
Naylor said that Jason Harris has told at least a half-dozen different stories about the fateful night, and he expects that he will tell yet another story when he takes the stand. While still free, Jason Harris, who was arrested about a week after his brother, wrote a letter to Christopher Harris saying that police had the wrong man.
“He wrote a letter to Chris that said, paraphrasing, we all know you didn’t do this – the same man who’s going to take the stand and say ‘I knew all along,’” Naylor told jurors.
But the defense attorney acknowledged that he has a tough case.
“It will be very difficult for you to actually reserve judgment until you retire to the jury room,” Naylor said. “It’s going to be hard. It’s going to be almost impossible. But that’s what we need you to do. Please, I implore you, I beg you: Pay attention, take good notes and give Chris Harris a chance to present a defense.”
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.