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Thursday, May 30, 2013 12:20 pm

The end is near

Defense rests, prosecution roars

The alleged love of Christopher Harris’ life didn’t show up in court on Wednesday to testify on behalf of the man accused of murdering her family.

Had she testified, Nicole Gee, Harris’ ex-wife who lived just down the street from her family beaten to death with a tire iron, would presumably have said that the defendant was a stand-up guy. After all, she had proclaimed his innocence immediately after his arrest on suspicion of killing her father Raymond “Rick” Gee, his wife Ruth and three of the couple’s children.

A devoted father to his nine-year-old daughter and newborn son, Nicole Gee had said in online postings more than three years ago, when the 2009 tragedy was fresh. So gentle that he couldn’t bear to gut a fish for frying, she wrote. They have the wrong man, she insisted, pointing out that he didn’t have a mark on his body after the brutal slaying of five people with a tire iron.

The jury didn’t hear any of that on Wednesday, not anything close. And it wasn’t the first time that the defense didn’t get what it had hoped from a witness summoned to say that Christopher Harris couldn’t be a psychopathic killer who wiped out five people with a tire iron, then acted like nothing had happened, even though he now acknowledges that he had stumbled across a massacre – seen the bodies, seen the blood -- but didn’t call police. On Tuesday, a longtime friend took a pass when asked whether he could say if the defendant has a reputation for truthfulness and veracity.

“To be honest, probably not,” answered Justin Montgomery, who met Harris in high school and considered him, honest or not, a “great guy who cares a lot about his family.”

Not much help for the defense, given that the jury has seen recordings of Harris lying to police, insisting that he wasn’t in the house that night even after the cops told him that they’d found his bloody palm print in a bathroom. He did swear to the tell the truth when he testified in his own defense last week, telling jurors that Dillen Constant, whom he clubbed to death in self defense, had killed his family, then turned on him when he stopped by unexpectedly.

Things didn’t improve for the defense on Wednesday after Harris’ lawyers rested their case and prosecutors called witnesses to rebut testimony from a psychologist who had told jurors the previous day that Dillen was a violent kid with plenty of warning signs.

Not so, said former teachers and a wrestling coach who knew the slain 14-year-old firsthand and told jurors about him on Wednesday.

Jurors on Wednesday may well have wondered whether they were listening to testimony about the same teen whom a psychologist who specializes in studying violence had discussed on Tuesday, focusing on such behavior as punching walls, fighting, hitting people and stealing, all factors that pointed to the potential for even more violent acts.

Dillen, his former teachers testified, was a veritable joy in the classroom, even though he had nearly 250 disciplinary referrals during his last two years at Chester-East Lincoln School in Lincoln, about nine miles east of the Dillen’s home in Beason.

“He had a lot of energy,” said Tamara Pagel, a special education teacher who teared up on the stand. “I don’t know if you’re familiar with Michael Jackson, but he’s the kind of kid who would do the moonwalk on the way to the pencil sharpener.”

On the other hand, Pagel had written up Dillen more than 80 times for various infractions that included once saying that he couldn’t wait for the school to blow up after he didn’t do well on a test. While Pagel easily recalled Dillen getting atta-boy tickets for good behavior that he redeemed for t-shirts at the school store, she had trouble recalling disciplinary write-ups, including the incident in which he wished the school would explode.

“If I did (write him up for that), it would be recorded,” Pagel said. “I do remember writing (disciplinary) referrals.”

Lisa Howard, another teacher, testified that Dillen ranked in the top three for the school in terms of the number of disciplinary referrals he received, but the vast majority were minor. Speaking up in class without raising his hand. Pushing a book or notebook from his desk to the floor because he couldn’t understand an assignment. Coming to class unprepared. Most homework assignments weren’t completed.

“When he became frustrated, all you had to do was talk to him,” Howard said.

Howard had more praise than criticism. Dillen liked to joke. While he struggled in school, he was “fun-going” and “loving” and “brotherly” toward his siblings, especially Tabitha, who was in an early education program.

“He doted on her like there was no tomorrow,” Howard testified.

Alex Dawson, Dillen’s wrestling coach, testified that the teen wasn’t the world’s greatest wrestler, but he had game, enough so that coaches chose him as the team’s most inspirational wrestler in his inaugural season, when he made the varsity and posted a 6-14 record, competing in the 112 and 119 pound weight classes.

Dillen’s biggest problem as a wrestler, Dawson testified, was a lack of fight.

“He was new to the sport, and he didn’t have the aggression that a lot of kids have,” Dawson said. “He was a good listener. He seemed to be a fast learner. He was never a problem in practice.”

If testimony from those who knew Dillen at school wasn’t bad enough for the defense, Logan County sheriff Steve Nichols, the trial’s final witness, took the stand and laid waste to the notion that the massacre was over when Harris reached the Gee house.

Telephone records show that Harris borrowed a phone at a Lawndale bar at 11:18 p.m. the night of the killings. After completing the call that lasted less than ten minutes, Harris and his brother finished their beers and stopped briefly a few blocks away at a woman’s house – they weren’t invited inside – then went to McLean where they drove past another woman’s house without stopping, then headed to Beason.

Assuming that it took 20 minutes for the brothers to finish their beers after completing the phone call, Harris would have left the Lawndale bar shortly before 11:50 p.m. It takes 13 minutes, driving the speed limit, to drive from the bar to McLean, the sheriff testified, and the drive from McLean to Beason lasts less than 16 minutes. The upshot? Harris would have been in Beason sometime before 12:30 a.m.

Rick Gee was still alive at 12:42 a.m. – that’s when he sent an online message to someone that contained no hint that anything was amiss. And so the defense, before it convinces the jury of anything else – especially the notion that the Gees were already dead when Harris arrived -- must convince jurors during closing arguments that the prosecution’s timelines are wrong. That could prove a tall order.

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.
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