Thursday, May 16, 2013 08:35 am
A prosecution witness gets grilled
Jason Harris is the sort of criminal who seems incapable of telling the truth, his penchant for lying certified by a perjury conviction.
On matters large and small, he lied and lied and lied again to police more than three years ago as they made a murder case against his older brother Christopher Harris, who stands accused of killing a family of five with a tire iron and leaving a three-year-old girl for dead. Arrested himself on suspicion of murder after police found a laptop from the bloody home in the bed of his pickup truck, Jason Harris instantly agreed to help police. But he kept spinning yarns during 14 hours of questioning over the course of three days following his arrest.
As a liar, Jason Harris was more prolific than proficient. Today, he says that his brother showed him a blister on his hand allegedly caused by the tire iron while the two were burning the defendant’s clothes shortly after the killings. After his arrest, he told the cops that the conversation happened outside a relative’s home. What difference, defense attorney Daniel Fultz asked on Thursday, could the location of the conversation possibly make?
Shortly after his arrest, Jason Harris told police that he had yelled for his brother to stop during the killings at the Beason home where Raymond “Rick” Gee, his wife Ruth and three of their children lost their lives. But that would have been impossible, given that Harris, who admits accompanying his brother to the home that night, had told the cops that he was as far as a half-mile up the road leading out of town, having run from the scene at the first sign of trouble. He also says that he made up the part about his brother going to Beason because he wanted to have sex with 16-year-old Justina Constant, Ruth Gee’s daughter by a prior relationship.
“Do you remember them (police) telling you to not swear to God anymore?” Fultz asked during a cross examination that stretched more than five hours over Wednesday and Thursday. By contrast, questioning by assistant attorney general Steven Nate lasted slightly more than three hours.
One by one, Fultz on Thursday went through Jason Harris’ lies with the help of a three-ring binder about six inches thick that held transcripts of fib-filled interviews with police, with dozens, if not hundreds, of colored tabs marking spots where he had lied. Recounting the lies for the jury took all morning and into the afternoon. What about a letter you wrote to your brother after his arrest, saying that you knew that he was innocent, Fultz asked in an attempt to undermine Jason’s statements that Christopher was a killer. The letter, never sent, was a lie, too, Jason testified – he knew that all mail sent to inmates is read by jailers, and so he had hoped to throw authorities off track.
On several occasions on Thursday, Harris said that he had told so many mistruths that he couldn’t recall what he had told authorities after his own arrest one week after his brother was taken into custody. And it may not matter.
Under a plea agreement with prosecutors, Harris, who was facing life in prison for murder, will receive a 20-year sentence on reduced charges and be out of prison in slightly more than six years if he behaves himself behind bars. All he had to do was testify truthfully against his brother, and given that he freely admitted that he lied like a warehouse of rugs after his arrest, he needed only keep his story straight on the stand. By and large, he succeeded.
The defense nearly poked a hole in Harris’ account of the killings when he said that he saw children standing in the Gee living room through a crack in the front door. Under questioning by Fultz, it became clear that the door would have had to have been open significantly wider than a crack for Harris to have seen into the living room. Aside from that, Harris’ story, albeit hard to believe, remained consistent.
He said that there was just one scream. He said that Dillen Constant, Ruth Gee’s 14-year-old son, came out of the house twice after that blood-curdling scream that marked the start of the carnage. The first time, Dillen was uninjured as he approached Harris in the dark and uttered his name in a hushed tone, the convicted perjurer testified, but he never yelled or screamed or asked for help or even ran before going back into the house. The second time Dillen emerged, he was pursued by the accused murderer, who beat him with a tire iron as he lay helpless on the ground, Jason Harris testified, but he still didn’t scream. Rather, Jason Harris told the jury, Dillen said “Stop, Chris, please stop.”
Aside from a sound like a bowling ball hitting the floor that preceded the first and only scream, Jason Harris said he heard no sounds or other signs of distress from inside the house for 10 or 15 minutes during a five-on-one massacre, with the alleged killer emerging with nary a scratch save a small blister on his hand that wasn’t serious enough to merit his arrest when police first noticed it after matching Christopher’s shoes to prints found inside the house and just one day before his palm print was linked to a bloody print found in the home. After coming out of the house 15 minutes or so after the first thump, Jason testified that his brother went back in, tire iron in hand, and he then heard a long series of loud thumps.
After Fultz finished, Nate questioned Jason for just 35 minutes. While Jason no longer says that his brother told him that he wanted to have sex with Justina – he now says that the accused killer said that he wanted to talk to the girl -- Nate resurrected the possibility of a sexual motive by noting that Christopher Harris had tried contacting three different women that night but struck out. He noted that Jason had testified that Christopher, just minutes before arriving at the Gee house, told him that Justina had hit on him.
“Was it fair to say the defendant was making a lot of attempts to find women to hook up with?” Nate asked. “Knowing what the defendant had been trying to do all evening, what did you think the defendant wanted to do when he said he wanted to talk to Justina?”
“I took it as the same as he wanted to do with the other females,” Jason answered.
Near the end, the brothers’ stepfather appeared near tears as he watched Jason testify against Christopher, with their legs shackled and each under watch of guards who sat close by. Lies aside, Nate established that the central point had remained the same since Jason was arrested: He had consistently told authorities that his brother had killed the Gee family. Any lies were told to protect his brother and himself.
“You do love your brother?” Nate asked.
“Yes, I do,” Jason Harris testified in an emotionless monotone that never changed during more than eight hours on the stand.
Nate in his final questions may have made a minor mistake when he asked Jason whether he lied to minimize his own involvement and because he didn’t want to get into more trouble.
“I was trying to protect my brother and protect myself at the same time,” Jason testified.
By asking Jason about his past lies told to benefit himself, the prosecutor had opened the door for the defense to remind jurors what was now at stake for the witness who had once faced a life sentence but had cut a deal.
“The lying you were doing to protect him (Christopher) was to keep him out of hot water, and the lying to protect you was to keep you out of hot water,” Fultz said in what was both a question and a statement. “And you’re here today to keep yourself out of hot water.”
“Objection,” Nate said.
“Overruled,” the judge said.
“I’m here today to tell the truth,” Jason responded.
And those were the final words before a guard, outside the presence of jurors, cuffed the witness and led him out of the courtroom. Not once did he look back at his brother or relatives who sat in the gallery.
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.