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Sunday, May 26, 2013 11:49 am

Taking the stand

Prosecution pounds Harris

It is always a risk for a defendant to take the stand in a criminal proceeding. Christopher Harris showed why on Friday.

Whether he murdered anyone or not, Harris during nearly three hours on the stand revealed himself to be a narcissistic liar of the first order. While no one can force a defendant to testify, Harris had little real choice, given his defense: The massacre was over when I dropped by the Gee home in Beason unexpectedly, and I killed the murderer, 14-year-old Dillen Constant, in self defense when he came after me with a knife.

It is an unlikely tale, to be sure, from a man who was present at a bloodbath, concocted a flimsy alibi and never called police. But, given that the defendant is the only living witness who knows for sure what happened in the house where five members of the Gee family died after having their heads bashed in with a tire iron, Harris waived the fifth and gave it a shot.

It was likely the most important testimony of the trial. And the prosecution scored at least as much as the defense.

The Gees, Harris testified under questioning by his lawyer Daniel Fultz, were family. His relationship with Nicole Gee, his former wife and adult daughter of Raymond “Rick” Gee, spanned 15 years, nearly half of his life. Less than two months before the tragedy, she gave birth to his son, Christopher Riley Harris, who goes by Riley.

Harris didn’t call it the residence or the house or the scene during testimony. It was “Rick’s house,” a place where he was welcome at all hours, a place where he shot baskets with the kids in the driveway and, more discretely, smoked marijuana with Rick. The two also worked together in construction.

“He was like a father to me,” the defendant testified. “We were really good friends.”

Harris testified that he was also close with the children of Rick and Ruth Gee, including Tabitha, 3, Austin, 11, Justina, 16, and Dillen. Took them on rides on his four-wheeler. Once took Justina to a father-daughter dance at school when Rick couldn’t make it. Nicole lived just a few blocks away, easy walking distance, and so he was at the house almost daily.

“They considered me Uncle Chris,” the defendant testified.

Four days before the bodies were found, Harris moved out on Nicole, which was really no big deal. The relationship had been off-and-on for years.

“For the most part, it was good,” Harris testified. “We always wanted to be together, but we always found reasons to split up.”

Money, or lack thereof, was part of the reason he walked out, Harris said. Riley was another issue.

“She was complaining that I didn’t feed him right,” Harris said. “We just got into arguments, and we didn’t want to do that around the kids. … I just decided to leave, let things blow over.”

Rick Gee knew about the break-up the day it happened, Harris testified, and wasn’t upset. Indeed, the two smoked a bowl together before Harris left for Armington to stay in his brother’s garage, as he had done three or four times previously when he and Nicole weren’t getting along.

Harris spent the night of the killings with his brother, drinking, smoking pot and snorting cocaine. Then, he testified, he and his brother, nearly out of pot, headed to Beason to score weed from Rick Gee.

“There was blood everywhere”

The Gees’ dog, Baby, didn’t bark when he pulled up to the house, Harris testified, but other than that, there was nothing unusual.

“Did you get a tire iron out of the truck?” Fultz asked.

“No,” said Harris, contradicting previous testimony from his brother. “Why would I?”

The light was on in Ruth and Rick’s bedroom and the front door was ajar about four inches. He knocked lightly and hollered Rick’s name.

“Nobody hollered back, so I assumed they were in the bedroom,” Harris said. “I went on in.”

The lights were off in the living room and kitchen, but Harris knew his way around the home. He figured he would knock on Ruth and Rick’s bedroom door – Rick was often up until 3 or 4 in the morning, he testified. Then he saw Rick lying facedown in the hallway outside the master bedroom.

“I figured maybe he was sleeping or something,” Harris testified. “It was kind of weird. I walked up to him, called his name.”

Harris said he then called Ruth’s name and headed to the bedroom.

“I opened the door and I saw Ruth lying there on the floor.” Harris said.

“Did you notice anything unusual about her?” Fultz asked.

“She just had a bathrobe on her,” Harris replied. “It was open. There was blood everywhere.”

At that point, the witness frowned, looked down and paused for a moment or two before continuing.

“You can see into the bathroom,” Harris continued. “Austin was looking at me. He was laying on the (bathroom) floor. There was blood everywhere. He was, like, breathing really heavy, moving his arms around, looking at me.”

By now, Harris was sniffing and wiping at his eyes.

“Did you check on Ruth’s condition?” Fultz asked.

“Never got a chance to.”

“Why not?” the defense attorney asked.

“Dillen came up behind me,” the accused murderer said. “The floor creaks or whatever – that’s what I heard. I turned around and looked and he was standing there. He had a big long knife in his hand and he had blood on him. I said ‘Dillen, what happened?’ He didn’t say anything, he just kept looking at me.”

Harris testified that he again asked Dillen what had happened. This time, he testified, the teen swiped at him with the knife.

“I jumped back and he kind of jumped back as well,” Harris told the jury. “He didn’t come forward. He just looked at me like he was confused. I said ‘Dillen, it’s Chris – what happened?’ He tried to hit me with the knife again. I jumped back again.”

That’s when Harris says that he picked up a tire iron that was lying by Rick Gee’s feet and hit Dillen.

“Why?” Fultz asked.

“Because he was trying to hit me with that knife,” answered Harris, nearly sobbing. “He came back up when I hit him. I said ‘Dillen, it’s Chris. What are you doing?’ He tried to hit me again with the knife, so I smacked him again with the tire iron. He just kept looking at me. I came out of the bedroom. We were moving our way down the hallway. I’m not sure, really, what happened next. We went down the hallway to the living room. It was like he was going toward the (front) door. I just kind of went with him. I didn’t know what was going on. I just knew he had that knife in his hand.”

Still armed with the tire iron, Harris said he struck Dillen again in the living room, knocking the teen down. The teen got up and made his way outside through the front door.

“I didn’t know what was going on,” Harris said. “I didn’t know if someone else was there or if he was running from someone. When he left the house, I left the house. I was coming down the stairs behind him, he turned around like he was going to try to get me with the knife again, I smacked him again.”

“Did you hit him while he was down?” Fultz asked.

“Yeah,” the defendant answered.

“Why did you hit him while he was down?”

“I didn’t want him to get back up and hit me with that knife,” Harris replied. “I stopped. I called his name. I said ‘Dillen, stop, what’s going on?’ He didn’t respond. He never said anything to me.”

With Dillen on the ground outside, Harris said he went back in the house to check on Austin.

“Austin, he wasn’t moving anymore,” Harris testified. “His eyes were closed. Dillen came back in. He came through the doorway of the bedroom and I looked up. There he was. I just immediately hit him with the tire iron. I slipped, almost fell. There was blood everywhere.”

Harris said he didn’t see if Dillen was holding a knife or any other weapon.

“Did you care?” Fultz asked.

“Nope, because he had tried to stab me,” Harris answered. “There was blood everywhere. He had tried to hit me.”

“Did you hit him again in the bedroom several times?”

“Yes.”

“Did he fall down?”

“Yes, Harris answered. “He didn’t get back up again. I freaked out. I didn’t know what to do. I just freaked.”

Harris testified he checked in Tabitha’s room and didn’t see anyone, even though the three-year-old girl survived two tire iron blows to her head and was found many hours later at the doorway to the room she shared with Austin. He looked in Justina’s room and saw her lying on her bed, blood dripping from her head. He grabbed the Gees’ laptop computer, which he knew had been hooked up to a camera in the master bedroom where two bodies were found, and went outside where his brother was waiting. He testified that he didn’t want anyone to know that he had been there.

“I didn’t want to have to explain,” he said.

Although he had testified that he didn’t know whether someone else had been in the house, he didn’t check on Nicole Gee or his two children who lived just a few blocks away. Why not, Fultz asked.

“I don’t know,” Harris answered.

“Is it fair to say at that point you were more concerned with covering up your tracks?” Fultz asked.

“Yeah,” responded the defendant in a breaking voice. “I just wanted to get the hell out of there.”

State’s attorney Jonathan Wright objected when Fultz asked the defendant if he now knows that Tabitha lay critically wounded in the house for nearly 16 hours before she was found and rushed to a hospital.

“I’m trying to show the jury that he was being selfish and was only concerned about himself,” Fultz told the judge.

Wright took care of that during cross examination. In spades.

“You killed the Gee family”

Sticking to yes-no questions that made Harris look bad regardless of his response, the prosecutor began by holding up the tire iron that Harris admits throwing from a bridge, the knife found outside the Gee home stained with Dillen’s blood and a spatula, the sort that the defendant said caused a blister on his right hand while he was working part-time at a fast-food restaurant in Lincoln.

“Your testimony is, between this tire iron and this knife, the only injury you received was from this spatula two days two days before?” Wright asked. “You’re asking jurors to believe the only injury you had was a blister from flipping burgers at Steak ‘n Shake?”

Wright spent nearly 20 minutes going through all the truthful things that Jason Harris, the defendant’s brother who testified for the prosecution, had earlier told the jury. It was a mirror image of Fultz’ interrogation of the defendant’s younger brother, when the defense attorney spent nearly three hours forcing the younger Harris to admit all of the lies he had told police, even after his arrest on murder charges. Under a plea bargain, Jason Harris has agreed to plead guilty to lesser charges and could be free in a little more than six years.

The prosecutor established through the defendant that Jason Harris had told the truth when he detailed the brothers’ travels through rural Logan County the night of the killings and that the younger Harris had told the truth when he said that he helped the defendant burn his clothes and agreed on a lie to tell police, saying that they had never been in Beason when the Gees died. He established that the younger Harris lied to help his brother and wouldn’t be in any trouble if he had not agreed to help the defendant with the cover up.

Wright also forced the defendant to admit that he is an accomplished liar by pointing out that he had professed surprise when Nicole Harris called him, hysterical, when the bodies were found.

“You played dumb, didn’t you?” Wright said. “And you did a good job of it, didn’t you? If there’s anyone in the world who knows how to read you, it’s Nicole Gee, isn’t it? You fooled her. You’re good at it, aren’t you?”

“I guess so,” Harris replied evenly.

Step by step, Wright walked Harris through the cover up, how he had thrown his shoes and the tire iron off a bridge and burned his clothing. But the most damning part was the stolen laptop that Harris had feared might have been connected to a webcam set up in the Gees’ bedroom.

“If this computer had been running, it would have shown Dillen swiping at you with a knife,” the prosecutor said. “If anyone was chasing Austin, it would have shown whoever was chasing Austin as well, correct? The ultimate question here, Mr. Harris, is that if that webcam was running, it would have shown who the murderer was, wouldn’t it? And you took that laptop computer out of the Gee house, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“And you didn’t steal it to sell it on the street for money,” Wright continued. “You stole it so that whatever was captured on that web camera would never be seen by anybody. … The computer’s going to do more damage to you than the shoes and the tire iron, correct?

“I thought it was all bad,” Harris answered.

Things didn’t improve for the defendant after that. Wright pointed out that Harris didn’t call 911 or summon neighbors or check on his nine-year-old daughter or infant son who lived just down the street.

“Because, frankly, Mr. Harris, there was no need to, was there?” the prosecutor said. “You killed the Gee family, so there’s no need to check on anybody else.”

“It never crossed my mind,” the defendant responded. “I just got out of there.”

Wright then pointed out that when police, early in the investigation, asked Harris if he had any suspects in mind, he provided several names, fully knowing that the death penalty was still in place in Illinois. One of the people he falsely fingered was Pudge Koehler, the ex-husband of Rick Gee’s mother, who found the bodies.

“Would you agree that Pudge Koehler was like a grandfather to Justina, Dillen, Austin and Tabitha?” Wright said. “You’d agree that he loved those kids. You’d agree that he loved Rick Gee like a son. He was so overcome with grief (when he found the bodies) he dropped to his knees. And that’s the man you told police to go investigate?”

“I made a mistake,” Harris said.

Even with the death penalty a possibility, Wright pointed out that Harris lied to police after they matched his palm print to the bloody print he left on a bathroom counter above Austin’s body, saying he hadn’t been in the house, even after they suggested the exact scenario the defendant now claims: Maybe something had happened before he got there.

Harris also hinted at what might have sparked a fight between Rick Gee and Harris. He pointed out that the defendant had walked out on Rick Gee’s daughter, leaving her with two young children, in part due to arguments over money, then used what cash he had to go out drinking and chasing women with his brother. What did he expect when he showed up at the Gee home in the wee hours drunk, high and unannounced?

“Wouldn’t you agree that’s a high-risk situation for trouble?” Wright asked.

“Yeah, I know how it looks,” the defendant answered. “I’d showed up before at Rick’s late.”

“Drunk and high on cocaine?” Wright pressed.

“Yeah.”

“After a night spent looking for women?” the prosecutor inquired.

Wright took through Harris through his story of what happened at the Gee home that deadly night, particularly the confrontation with Dillen. The defendant said that Dillen, after the first few blows from a tire iron, was walking backward as the two headed toward the front door.

“I backed him out of the room,” said Harris, who on direct examination had said “I just kind of went with him.”

The prosecutor pointed out that Dillen, once outside, would have had no escape. A bloodstained bucket found outside the house, where the defendant acknowledges hitting Dillen with the tire iron, was against the house and next to a closed gate perpendicular to the home.

“He’s cornered, isn’t he?” Wright said. “Your back is to an open area. His back is to a house and a closed fence.”

“I hit him and he went down,” Harris said.

The prosecutor mocked Harris’ story about going back in the house to check on Austin.

“Holding a tire iron, correct?” Wright asked.

“Yes,” the defendant replied. “I went in to try to help him.”

“Do you have any medical training at all, Mr. Harris?” Wright countered. “You would agree he’s in a large pool of blood. So you decided that, untrained, you would try to render aid but not call for help?”

The prosecutor reminded Harris that Dillen had, by the defendant’s admission, sustained at least a half-dozen tire iron blows to his head when he appeared in the master bedroom after Harris said that he had gone back in the house. The defendant acknowledged that he did not know if Dillen still had the knife when he struck the teen again with a tire iron.

“Dillen lost a lot of blood, didn’t he?” Wright said. “And he’s taken multiple blows to the head by a tire iron from you. Mr. Harris, he wasn’t a threat to anybody.”

“To me, he was,” Harris said. “I hit him a couple of times with a tire iron and he still came at me.”

“It wasn’t a fight, Mr. Harris, it was a slaughter, wasn’t it?” the prosecutor shot back.

Harris is countering testimony from Ty Cline, a jailhouse snitch who says that the defendant confessed, by saying that he was only passing on details about the killings that he had gotten from Patrick “Tim” Timoney, his first lawyer in the case. Wright attacked that contention by presenting Harris with snippets from letters that he wrote to friends after his arrest.

“I am so in the dark, man,” Harris wrote in one letter. “The communication with my lawyers sucks.”

“It’s been two years yesterday since I was arrested and I know nothing more now than I did then,” he wrote in another.

The worst part for Harris came near the end of a cross examination that lasted nearly 90 minutes.

“You showed some emotion testifying about the Gee family here today,” Wright said as he asked for a photograph to be projected onto the courtroom screen. “Mr. Harris, where is the emotion for the Gee family in this photograph?”

The jury was looking at a picture of the defendant, smiling, along with his paramour Kristi Moore, with whom he had made love less than 12 hours after his visit to Beason. Jurors had first seen it a week ago, when Moore testified that Harris was acting perfectly normal when he came to her home for sex. She snapped several photographs afterward, with the two lovers looking every bit like smitten teenagers.

“I blocked it all out,” Harris said.

Wright wouldn’t let it go.

“This is a photograph of you and Kristi Moore,” the prosecutor said. “This is within hours of all of this transpiring. Isn’t it fair to say that you’re smiling? Kristi Moore is smiling. And as far as you know, Rick Gee is still lying facedown in the hallway. And Austin’s lying in a large pool of his own blood in the master bedroom. … Tabitha’s unaccounted for. So, when you’re having sex and smiling it up with Kristi the next day, that could have been Nicole walking in and finding her family?”

“Yeah.”

“That could have been your nine-year-old daughter walking in and seeing that?”

“Yes,” Harris acknowledged. “I made some huge mistakes. I went to Kristi for comfort.”

“You referred to it in the interview (with police) as a booty call,” Wright retorted.

There was little the defense could salvage. Re-direct examination lasted less than a minute.

“Chris, you told a lot of lies to the police, didn’t you?” Fultz asked. “You did a lot of stupid things, didn’t you?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re not on trial for lying or being stupid, are you?” Fultz inquired. “What are you on trial for?”

“Murder.”

“Did you do it?”

“No.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.
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