Wednesday, May 29, 2013 11:45 am
Defense maneuvers around setback
Tuesday morning started poorly for the defense in the murder trial of Christopher Harris.
Circuit Court Judge Scott Drazewski began the day by shooting down a pair of potentially pivotal motions aimed at selling jurors on the notion that the real killer was 14-year-old Dillen Constant, who was found dead with his mother Ruth Gee, his stepfather Raymond “Rick” Gee and two siblings, their heads bashed in with a tire iron.
Harris says he walked into the Gee home unexpectedly after the massacre was over and killed Dillen in self defense when the teen, mute, came at him with a knife, for no apparent reason. The defendant, who didn’t call police, faces life in prison.
Dillen, the defense argues, was a deeply troubled teen with mental issues whose own family considered him a time bomb.
“I’m worried that he’s going to severely hurt himself or someone else,” Ruth Gee told Dillen’s therapist from Mental Health Centers of Central Illinois in December, 2007, nearly two years before the slayings. “He has no fear and he doesn’t listen.”
Dillen’s stepfather was also concerned. About two years before the killings, Rick Gee told Judy Stogdell, his mother and Dillen’s grandmother, that “we’re all going to wake up dead some day” if the family couldn’t get the youngster under control.
Hearsay was the issue on Tuesday. In a pretrial ruling, Drazewski had ruled that Olivia Massena, Dillen’s therapist, could not tell the jury about Ruth Gee’s statement because it occurred long before the massacre and did not indicate a direct threat made against anyone. Drazewski reaffirmed that ruling on Tuesday and also decided that jurors, for the same reasons, could not hear Stogdell testify about her son’s worries that Dillen was a murderer in the making.
Defense attorney Daniel Fultz sounded desperate as he pleaded for the judge to allow the statements into evidence.
“We don’t have 50 statements to choose from from Ruth and Rick Gee,” Fultz told the judge. “They’re (the two statements are) all we have.”
The defense struck out with Dillen’s teachers, despite more than 240 disciplinary write-ups from school personnel in the space of two academic years.
“We have contacted teachers who made ten, fifteen referrals,” Fultz told the judge. “When we go out and talk to them, you know what they say? ‘I don’t remember that, Dillen was a good kid.’ They don’t want to get involved with this. That’s not real helpful.”
In pretrial hearings, the defense, using school records, documented such behavior as Dillen kicking another student in the crotch, spraying someone with Lysol and slapping people. His family sought medical attention for his behavorial issues, but, with limited financial means, had difficulty following through. Although Medicaid paid some bills, Dillen, apparently, never saw a psychiatrist, as recommended by a doctor who had prescribed drugs for attention deficit disorder that didn’t seem to work.
“This is the dilemma we find ourselves in,” Fultz told the judge. “The problem never got fixed. They took Dillen to a counselor because it was less expensive.
“Dillen was removed from school due to behavioral issues,” Fultz continued. “I don’t want to make their closing argument for them (the prosecution). If I was them, I would say this is a cheap shot, blaming this on a 14-year-old boy. It’s important to show the parents of this child, the mother and the stepfather, had serious concerns about Dillen. Those are really important issues for the jury to know about to determine whether this is a made-up defense or a defense based on facts.”
Without statements from those who knew Dillen firsthand, the defense turned to someone who had never heard his name until after the tragedy.
A controversial expert
At $250 an hour, Craig Anderson was, likely, the highest paid person in the courtroom on Tuesday. As a psychologist from Iowa State University, his ticket to the proceedings was his scholarship on how video games incite violence. It is, several courts have found, a tenuous link at best.
The U.S. Supreme Court in a 2011 decision overturning a California statute that restricted the sale or rental of violent video games to minors dismissed Anderson’s conclusions about potentially harmful effects of violent video games, finding that any effects are “both small and indistinguishable from effects produced by other media.” In rejecting Anderson’s findings, the highest court in the land cited his testimony that the effects of violent video games are akin to the effects from watching Bugs Bunny or The Roadrunner.
Dillen had played Mortal Kombat, a game depicting hand-to-hand combat, within hours of the slayings, which opened the door to Anderson’s testimony. On Tuesday, assistant attorney general Steven Nate cited several court decisions in which judges pooh-poohed links between violent video games and real-life violence.
But video games didn’t seem to be the point of Anderson’s testimony. Rather, the defense through Anderson was able to get evidence of Dillen’s rocky life at home and school before the jury that would otherwise have been tough, if not impossible, to get into evidence.
As a psychologist and expert on violent behavior, Anderson was allowed to testify about risk factors that could make someone prone to violence, including poor parenting, lousy academic performance and a history of violent acts. And so the prosecution was helpless as defense attorney Peter Naylor opened the floodgates by asking Anderson what red flags he saw in Dillen’s school disciplinary records that weren’t introduced into evidence and statements by unnamed people who hadn’t taken the stand who reportedly said that they had witnessed Dillen behaving badly.
“Basically, there’s a lot of reports of fighting, slapping, hitting, a few instances of throwing rocks – things like that,” Anderson testified. “There was one report that Dillen on two occasions during arguments pulled a knife on his sister Justina.”
Dillen had also reportedly punched holes in walls at home when he didn’t get his way, stolen such things as Pokeman cards, cigarettes and pornography from his parents and half-sister Nicole Gee, who is Harris’ ex-wife, Anderson told the jury. When he didn’t do well on a test at school, he once exclaimed that he couldn’t wait until the school blew up, the researcher said, and his parents reportedly nailed his bedroom window shut after he snuck out of the house. He had slashed seats on a school bus and yelled inappropriate sexual and racial remarks, Anderson said. There were also weapons.
“Dillen was reported to keep a large knife, five or six inches long, and a golf club in his room for protection, which again can be thought of as an indicator,” Anderson testified. “He was also known to frequently carry a pocket knife. … About a week prior to the killings, Dillen was reported to have kicked down his parents’ locked bedroom door and stolen some money from the room and initially claimed a stranger had done it. He late admitted he had done it.”
Attention deficit disorder was a risk factor, Anderson testified, as was asthma.
“So asthma is a risk factor?” Nate asked during cross examination.
“Asthma is not a strong risk factor,” Anderson answered. “I included it (in my report) because the CDC (Center for Disease Control) lists ‘other medical conditions’ and these were other medical conditions.”
Dillen did poorly in school, which was another risk factor, Anderson testified. He was held back in the first grade and reportedly promoted to the sixth grade despite earning D’s and F’s in the fifth grade, he said. He refused to do in-class assignments and didn’t complete homework assignments.
Dillen had problems with attention and impulsivity, which could be attributed to diagnosed attention deficit disorder and his parents, Anderson said. His biological father had been arrested for driving under the influence and had a drug conviction, his mother occasionally smoked pot and his stepfather commonly smoked pot, reportedly sold it and was allegedly “heavily into drugs, and that included cocaine usage.”
“There’s certainly evidence of a lot of drug activity in the house,” Anderson said.
There was also sex. Anderson said that the kids in the house knew that Ruth and Rick Gee viewed online pornography, and their open marriage and swinging lifestyle wasn’t good for their children.
“This is certainly not an ideal home life for Dillen,” Anderson testified.
Missing homework assignments and skipped appointments at Mental Health Centers of Central Illinois evidenced a lack of parental involvement in Dillen’s life, the psychologist testified.
“Dillen would obviously not be able to get himself to appointments,” Anderson said. “There was one report where his mother doubled his Adderall (prescribed for attention deficit disorder) medication without talking to a medical professional first. That’s not a safe thing to do.”
It was, in short, a blizzard of alleged misdeeds and misbehavior both by Dillen and the adults in his home aimed at taking the spotlight off the defendant and putting it on those who lost their lives. And the prosecution seethed.
“The most offensive testimony I’ve ever heard in my life, I think,” assistant attorney general Michael Atterberry said in a low voice to a witness-victim coordinator during a break.
“They don’t understand the science”
Nate began his cross examination by asking Anderson whether he had turned violent after playing Mortal Kombat himself. No, the psychologist responded. Isn’t it true that Pac Man is considered a violent video game?
“That one’s a little iffy, but under some definitions, it could be, yes,” the psychologist answered.
Nate hammered on the admitted inability of Anderson and other psychologists to predict behavior based on the playing of video games. Anderson acknowledged that he could not say how much violence would be reduced if violent video games were banned, and he also agreed with Nate that as many as 70 percent of adolescent boys in the United States play violent video games.
“Would you agree that most people who are exposed to violent video games don’t commit violent acts?” Nate asked.
“That is correct,” Anderson answered.
The psychologist would not agree when Nate asked him whether his judgment was no better than a coin toss, but he did acknowledge that the risk factors he discussed under direct examination were small in terms of signaling violent behavior.
“Would you agree that just by being male, that’s as much of a risk factor as prior acts of violence or aggression?” the prosecutor asked.
“I’d have to look up the table, but it sounds about right,” the psychologist responded.
The problem, Anderson told the court, is that attorneys just don’t get it.
“Forgive me, your honor, but it’s a good thing that lawyers aren’t psychologists,” Anderson said. “They don’t understand the science.”
Under questioning by Nate, Anderson admitted that he had not interviewed anyone in developing his opinions about Dillen but instead had relied on documents supplied by defense attorneys.
“You have no way of knowing the truth or veracity of the records you reviewed,” Nate observed.
Anderson acknowledged that the majority of disciplinary issues at school involved such trivial things as shooting rubber bands. Anderson also said that he wasn’t aware that the person who said that Dillen pulled a knife on his sister has a mental disability.
“While he’s in his 20s, his parents say he functions at the level of a kindergartner,” said the prosecutor, drawing an objection from the defense that was sustained.
Under cross examination, the psychologist said that he had no way of knowing how often Dillen played violent video games, nor could he say whether the teen knew what his mother and stepfather did in their bedroom. He stood his ground when Nate pointed out that Dillen’s biological father’s drug conviction came in 1994, before the teen was born.
“It would still be relevant,” the psychologist said.
With Anderson’s testimony concluded, the defense is expected to rest its case after just a few more witnesses. The jury should hear closing arguments on Thursday.
“We’re nearing the end of our journey, folks,” Drazewski told jurors on Tuesday before excusing them early.
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.