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Thursday, May 16, 2013 02:02 pm

A star witness testifies

But can he be trusted?

An imperfect witness took the stand Wednesday in the murder trial of Christopher Harris, at once helping and harming both sides.

In opening statements, Logan County state’s attorney Jonathan Wright had warned that Jason Harris, the defendant’s brother, is not likeable, and Jason certainly delivered on that score, displaying no emotion or remorse as he described the brutal slayings of the Gee family in Beason nearly four years ago. Rather than seek help or do anything else to stop his older brother while a family was beaten to death with a tire iron inside their home, Jason testified that he hid outside behind trees.

“Did you ever think of going into the house?” asked assistant state attorney general Steven Nate.

“It crossed my mind, but I didn’t want any part of what was going on,” Jason answered in a monotone voice that never changed during six hours on the stand. He could have been describing what he had for lunch or the weather.

Jason Harris is both the best and only eyewitness the state has. He says that he saw Dillen Constant run out of the house followed by the defendant, who hit the 14-year-old with a tire iron five or six times while the boy was on the ground. After Christopher went back in the house, Dillen got up and also went back inside, where he, two siblings, his mother Ruth Gee and his stepfather Raymond “Rick” Gee were found dead the next day. Tabitha Gee, 3, was critically injured from two tire iron blows to her head but survived.

The defense claims that Dillen had already killed his family when Christopher and his brother arrived unexpectedly in the wee hours of Sept. 21, 2009. Dillen, the defense claims, attacked the defendant, who killed the teen in self defense.

Jason’s account of the bloody night was maddening, if only for his sheer disinterest in asking his brother why he had done the deed.

Ten days passed between the killings and Christopher Harris’ arrest. Several times in the immediate aftermath, Jason Harris said he exclaimed “What the fuck” outside the Gee home.

“Did you ever ask Chris why he did what he did?” asked Daniel Fultz, lead defense attorney.

“I never asked him directly,” the defendant’s brother answered.

“Did he ever volunteer an explanation?” Fultz inquired.

“No.”

“Did you think that was strange?” Fultz continued.

“He told me bits and pieces of what happened but he never explained why it happened,” Jason Harris answered.

The prosecution didn’t get a much better answer.

“He said that he couldn’t leave any witnesses and that he didn’t know what came over him,” Jason Harris testified under questioning by Nate.

And what was your reaction when your brother told you what had happened in that house, Nate asked.

“Speechless,” Jason replied. “I really didn’t say much at all.”

A convicted liar

Jason Harris had been charged with first-degree murder and was facing life in prison. He is testifying for the prosecution in exchange for a 20-year sentence. With time off for good behavior and credit for time served, he will be a free man in a little more than six years.

“Your understanding is you have to tell the truth in this courtroom before you get the deal?” Fultz inquired.

“Yes.”

“Do you know who will decide whether or not you told the truth,” the defense attorney asked.

“No.”

But the inference was obvious. Prosecutors, not the defense, will decide, and so Jason Harris has plenty of reason to please them, regardless of the truth. And he is a proven liar.

Harris, then 19, was convicted of perjury in 2007 after telling a judge that he had an infant son and had not had any contact with law enforcement for three years. He was hoping the judge would let him out of jail in connection with a juvenile offense unspecified in court and Logan County sheriff’s records, but both statements were easily disproven. On Wednesday, he admitted that he lied to police after the killings, both before and after his arrest.

Fultz drilled down hard, going through Jason Harris’ lies in detail, especially a series of fibs that he told during a police interview the day that his brother was arrested and just five days before he went to jail after police found a laptop from the Gee house in the bed of his pickup truck, wrapped in a blanket.

The part about his brother returning to Jason’s home in Armington at 11:30 p.m. the night of the killings? A lie, admitted Jason, who testified Wednesday that he and his brother were, in fact bar hopping at that point before heading to Beason. And when you told the cops you had nothing to do with this? Also a lie, the witness acknowledged. What about when you said that you hadn’t helped your brother get rid of evidence? A complete fabrication, said Jason Harris, who testified that he helped his brother burn his clothing. Harris admitted that he also lied when the cops warned him that he could go to prison if he didn’t tell the truth, perhaps for the rest of his life if he ended up with a murder rap.

“Do you remember saying ‘We’ve got to find this guy who did this, so I’m going to help any way possible?’” Fultz asked. “And as you sat there…you had information that was relevant, didn’t you?”

“Yeah.”

Jason Harris admitted that he even lied to his brother, saying that he had put the Gees’ laptop in a junk car that was then crushed when, in fact, the cops found it in Jason’s truck. The defendant, Jason Harris testified, had called him a couple of days after the killings, saying that the cornfield where he had thrown the computer the night of the killings was being harvested. Jason Harris said that he retrieved the laptop and threw it into another cornfield, then retrieved it again because the second cornfield was set for harvest.

Why did he tell his brother that the laptop computer had been crushed along with a junk car?

“It was the first thing that popped into my head,” Jason Harris told jurors under questioning by Nate.

A chilling account

The story Jason Harris told on Wednesday had enough seemingly implausible details that it just might sway jurors who could find it hard to believe that an experienced liar with more than three years to think couldn’t come up with a better tale.

After a night spent smoking pot, drinking and snorting cocaine, Jason Harris said that he and his brother went “country cruising,” which he described as driving around rural areas while sipping beer and listening to music in Christopher Harris’ Ford Ranger pickup. They went to the homes of two women, one in Lawndale, the other in McLean, apparently hoping for a hook up – the women were love interests of the defendant. They kept driving after seeing a strange car, perhaps belonging to another man, at one home; at the other, they were not invited inside.

Then Christopher headed for Beason, saying that he wanted to drop by the home of his ex-wife, who lived near the Gee family. The brothers stopped briefly in an alley near her home to do a line of cocaine. Then Christopher asked an odd question.

“He asked if I had ever noticed Justina hitting on me,” Jason Harris testified under questioning by Nate. “He just said that she had hit on him a few times. He said that he was going to stop and talk to her.”

Fultz seized on the weirdness, asking the witness whether he found it odd that a man then 30 would be inquiring about a 16-year-old girl showing romantic interest in him.

“To tell you the truth, I wasn’t paying much attention to that at that time – I kind of blew it off,” Jason Harris said.

“Is it your belief, sir, that this is the reason Chris went to the house, he had to talk to Justina?” Fultz pressed. “And he had to talk to Justina at 12:30 or 12:40 in the morning? And this was a Sunday night?”

“We didn’t have a clock, so we didn’t know what time it was,” Jason Harris answered. “I really didn’t think about it.”

“If it were one o’clock in the afternoon, would you think it was odd that he was going to talk to a 16-year-old girl he said had been hitting on him?” Fultz asked.

“Yeah,” the witness allowed.

Once at the house, Christopher Harris did something unusual for someone about to slaughter five people with a tire iron, unbeknownst to his brother riding shotgun.

“He just stepped out of the truck and asked if I was coming in,” Jason Harris said under questioning by Nate. “I told him no.”

“Why didn’t you go in?” the prosecutor asked.

“I’m not sure,” the witness answered. “I just didn’t.”

Christopher walked around the back of the truck then past the passenger side where his brother was sitting. He had a tire iron, quite literally, up his sleeve, the witness testified.

“When he was walking by, it was in his sleeve,” Jason Harris told Nate. “He was holding onto the end of it. The curl of it was in his hand.”

During cross examination, Fultz jammed the purported murder weapon, biohazards be damned, up the sleeve of his own shirt. The effect was laughable, with the straight part of the iron acting as a splint that prevented the lawyer from bending his elbow while several inches of the iron extended past his fingertips. Only a blind person wouldn’t ask about it.

“Did it ever occur to you to ask Chris ‘Why are you taking a tire iron in to talk to a 16-year-old girl’” Fultz asked. “He doesn’t carry a tire iron everywhere he goes, correct? … Did he look unusual when he was walking around with a tire iron in his sleeve?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you think it would have been noticeable to the person who opened the door?”

The judge sustained a prosecution objection on grounds of speculation, but the point had been made in dramatic fashion.

Christopher Harris was in the house for nearly ten minutes before the first sign of trouble, Jason Harris testified.

“I heard a real loud thump and a really loud scream – it sounded like a bowling ball dropping,” Jason Harris told the jury.

“What did the scream sound like?” Nate asked.

“Like you hear on a horror film,” the witness answered. “As soon as I heard it I looked up and there was somebody looking out the bathroom window at me, and I dropped down by the side of the truck.”

Not sudden death

The killings unfolded over a period of some time, Harris testified. After a minute of crouching low behind his brother’s truck, Jason said he retreated further from the house to a vantage point behind trees, where he remained for ten or fifteen minutes, scared, without seeing or hearing anything. Then he saw Dillen come of Justina’s window – he didn’t actually see him crawl or jump out, but did see the teen pick himself up from the ground below the window. He was not injured as he approached Jason, according to testimony, and called the witness by his nickname.

“He was saying in a hushed tone ‘Bubba,’” Jason told the jury.

“Did you respond?” Nate asked.

“No.”

“Why not?” the prosecutor inquired.

“I’m not sure.”

After calling Harris’ name, Dillen turned and walked back into the house through the front door, the witness testified. A few minutes passed with Jason neither seeing nor hearing anything from inside the house. Then Dillen came out again, with the defendant in pursuit. Although he did nothing to help the Gees and testified that he wanted nothing to do with what was happening in the house, he was curious, so he stepped toward the road for a better vantage point.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” Jason testified. “I moved over so I could see.”

Jason says that Dillen was on is back with his hands up while Chris bent over him, striking him five or six times with a tire iron.

“Dillen said ‘Chris, stop, please stop,’” the witness testified.

“How was he saying it?” Nate asked.

“In a distressed voice, I guess you could say,” Jason replied. “A hushed voice.”

Fultz mocked that statement with obvious sarcasm during cross examination.

“And while Dillen is being hit with this tire iron, he’s saying to Chris, ‘Chris, please stop, Chris, please stop’ – that’s what Dillen is saying when he’s being hit with a tire iron?” the defense attorney asked.

Christopher did, in fact, stop beating the teen, his brother testified, and went back into the house. Dillen followed. No more than ten minutes passed when Christopher came back through the front door, the witness said.

“I proceeded from the trees back toward the truck and I said ‘What the fuck,’” Jason testified. “He just looked at me and turned back around and headed back towards the house. I went back towards the trees. … I heard multiple thumps. I thought he was destroying the house.”

Jason said he heard no voices or screams. He couldn’t count the thumps.

“It was a lot,” he testified. “More than I could keep up with.”

The next day, shortly before the bodies were found, Christopher told his brother what had happened inside the house, Jason testified matter of factly.

“He said that he was inside Justina’s room and he was kneeled down and he had the tire iron behind his back and he was talking with her and asked her if she wanted to go out,” Jason Harris testified. “Dillen came in. He said the next thing he knew, he smacked her. He said that Rick Gee came after him, and he hit him and he thought he broke his jaw. He said he took care of Ruth and then Austin came into their bathroom and he went in there and took care of him.”

Dillen was the toughest.

“He said that he was the hardest,” Jason Harris testified. “I took that as the hardest to kill. He came at him with a butcher knife.”

In some respects, Jason Harris’ testimony matches the evidence. Austin Gee’s body was, in fact, found in the master bathroom used by his parents. But Dillen was found wearing only swimming trunks; Jason Harris told the jury that he was also wearing a t-shirt.

The defense on Wednesday picked apart details, most notably a statement by Jason Harris that he had seen three children standing in the living room before Dillen came through his sister’s window. He said he saw them through the front door that was opened just a crack, but he could not say how the door was opened, and the crack became fairly wide when it became obvious that there was no way that Harris could have seen into the living room from his vantage point unless the door was open considerably wider than a crack.

But one detail, at least, could prove helpful to the defense.

Under questioning by Fultz, who asked exactly where the Harris brothers had been that night and for how long, Jason Harris estimated that he and his brother had arrived at the Gees between 12:30 a.m. and 12:35 a.m. That’s 15 minutes or so later than a witness who lives near the Gees says that he saw the defendant’s pickup headed toward the home on the edge of town.

Questions of time are critical. Rick Gee sent a message on his BlackBerry at 12:42 a.m., and if he was still alive when the Harris brothers arrived, the claim that Dillen had already killed everyone but Tabitha when the Harris brothers got there would be a tough one to sell.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.
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