Friday, May 31, 2013 12:20 pm
Metaphors and murder
Closing arguments have it all
Labeling his client “the most hated man in Peoria County,” defense attorney Daniel Fultz on Thursday told jurors that he was proud to represent Christopher Harris, accused of slaying a family of five with a tire iron.
“I’m proud to represent him because he deserves his chance to tell his side and have 12 people go into that jury room and treat him fairly, as I know you will,” Fultz told the jury during a 90-minute closing argument that was brief compared to a preceding closing statement by assistant state attorney general Michael Atterberry that stretched nearly two-and-a-half hours.
Testimony during the state’s case included long recitations of where blood, footprints and DNA was found in the home and, when possible, who it had come from. The state didn’t call a crime-scene reconstructionist but Atterberry on Thursday tried connecting the dots for the jury.
The physical evidence, Atterberry insisted, backed testimony from the defendant’s brother Jason Harris, who stood outside while his older brother was in the home. Charged with murder and facing life in prison, the younger Harris turned state’s witness, testifying in exchange for a 20-year-sentence on reduced charges. Jailed since 2009, he’ll do six more years with time off for good behavior.
Atterberry walked the jury through a first-he-killed-this-person, then-he-killed-that-person, then so-and-so-moved-here while the defendant did such-and-such scenario based on blood spatter, DNA and fingerprints. The testimony of Jason Harris, who had described the slayings based on what the defendant told him, matched the physical evidence, Atterberry argued.
“Now, again, Jason Harris’ testimony is powerfully corroborated by scientific evidence,” Atterberry said as he pointed out that blood spatter found outside the house proved that the defendant had battered 14-year-old Dillen Constant with a tire iron after the teen made his way out of the house.
Never mind that the defendant had already told jurors that he had done exactly that when he took the stand last week. Dillen, Christopher Harris says, came at him with a knife when he dropped by the home unexpectedly, so he killed him with a tire iron, striking the teen both inside and outside the house. The defense says Dillen was a troubled youth who murdered his family, and the defendant stopped by at exactly the wrong time, when the massacre was fresh.
Atterberry also pointed out that the defendant’s fingerprints were found on Justina Constant’s bedroom window, and he reminded the jury that Jason Harris had said that the teen had crawled through the window after a scream and a sound like a bowling ball hitting the floor. The attack had begun, the prosecutor said, and Dillen scrambled out of the house after his sister Justina, his stepfather Raymond “Rick” Gee and his mother Ruth Gee had been whacked with a tire iron by a man who knew that he had to eliminate every witness and so he closed the window to prevent more escapes. There was no blood on the window, Atterberry told the jury, so Dillen wasn’t yet bleeding.
“We know who closed the window after Dillen made it out,” said Atterberry as Fultz exchanged glances with co-counsel Peter Naylor, then scribbled notes. “The reasonable inference is that he had gone out that window to try to get help. … It’s the normal thing that anyone would do.”
There was more. Among other things, the forensics proved that the defendant had stood over 11-year-old Austin Gee, bracing himself with a bloody hand on a bathroom counter as he clubbed the boy’s head with a tire iron, Atterberry said. Forensics also proved the path of Dillen who, after being with a tire iron, made it back into the house in a valiant but doomed attempt to save his family, the prosecutor argued.
“The absurdity of the defendant’s self-defense claim against Dillen gets more absurd as you follow the blood trail back into the house,” Atterberry asserted.
Focusing on forensics was a curious tact by Atterberry, given that the forensic evidence in the case arguably favors the defense, which has dismissed the younger Harris as a self-interested snitch with a 2007 perjury conviction to boot. But Atterberry on Thursday kept telling the jury that forensics proved that Jason Harris wasn’t a liar.
Snitches and Johnny Cash
The defense attorney began by admitting the obvious.
Christopher Harris is a rotten person. He is accused of unimaginably awful things, and his own actions brought him into the courtroom as a defendant because acted guilty. And worse. Confident that he had fooled the cops, he told police to investigate such people as Pudge Koehler, a grandfather figure to the Gee children who fell to his knees when he found the bodies.
“My client fingers him as a potential suspect?” Fultz said. “That’s shocking to my conscience.”
Then there was the sexual dalliance with Kristy Moore on the morning after. Harris, who had walked out on his ex-wife and children just four days earlier, had testified that he went to his sometime-girlfriend for comfort, and she snapped several pictures of the couple kissing and nuzzling and smiling.
“Comfort?” Fultz said. “We’ve got five dead people in a house and a three-year-old girl fighting for her life and he’s up in Clinton, Illinois for comfort? Whether he did it or didn’t do it, it’s unfathomable that, the next day, he did what he did. I can’t get around those facts. They are what they are. … He’s got no one to blame but himself.”
With some of the most damning evidence against his client addressed upfront, Fultz went to serious work. He began by shredding Atterberry.
If Christopher Harris had clubbed three people with a tire iron then closed a bedroom window after Dillen scrambled through it, why weren’t the fingerprints in blood? And if he was wielding a tire iron, why were the prints from his right hand?
“So he laid the tire iron down, cleaned his hand off and then closed the window?” Fultz asked rhetorically.
If Harris had stood over Austin in a bathroom while pounding his head with a tire iron, why weren’t any of his footprints found near the boy’s head? Why did Rick Gee have wounds on his hand consistent with a knife slipping, and why did Dillen have a cut on his cheek consistent with being cut by a knife? Most importantly, if all the forensic evidence painted such an obvious picture, why didn’t the experts from the state police say so?
“These are very bright people,” Fultz said. “If the state police thought they could interpret this crime scene the way that Mr. Atterberry said he could this morning, wouldn’t they have put this on when they presented their evidence? … Nobody stood up and tied all this together.
“One of the reasons I’m not going to stand up here and tell you everything that happened in that house that night is, I don’t know,” Fultz continued. “And they don’t know, either.”
On one point, at least, Fultz couldn’t resist.
“Folks, this is a DNA analysis kit from Rick Gee’s fingernails,” Fultz said as he held up a small paper packet. “There’s your reasonable doubt.”
The kit contained DNA collected from beneath Rick Gee’s fingernails that a state police expert testified came from Dillen, buttressing the defense claim that the two engaged in mortal combat before the defendant arrived.
If the defendant really did carry a tire iron from his truck into the house with him, as Jason Harris testified, then the jury should find him guilty as charged, Fultz said. Then he pointed out that police found no shoeprints from the defendant on the passenger side of the truck, where Jason Harris said that his brother had walked to fetch the iron.
“Did he float?” Fultz asked sarcastically.
Then there was the matter of Ty Cline, a jailhouse snitch convicted of murder who had told jurors that Harris confessed while the two were cellmates. Cline testified that Harris told him that he had gotten into a confrontation with Rick Gee in the home’s foyer, then fetched a tire iron from someplace outside. Problem is, Fultz told the jury, no DNA from Rick Gee was found in the foyer where Cline said the massacre began.
Fultz made much of the fact that Cline was transferred from a maximum security prison to a medium security facility in exchange for his testimony, and he didn’t sign the deal until the trial had already started and after he had been moved.
“Ty Cline is so desperate to get paid for his testimony that he…” Fultz began.
“Objection!” Atterberry said in an angry tone. His jaw was clenched.
If the opposition objects, you’re scoring, according to an old courthouse saw, but objections during closing arguments are rare. Atterberry’s point, that Cline had received no money for his appearance in court, was fairly minor – surely the jury knew that jailhouse snitches don’t get currency for giving up goods. It appeared that Fultz had gotten under skin.
Circuit Court Judge Scott Drazewski reminded the jury that statements made during closing arguments are not considered evidence and told Fultz to proceed.
“So, what did Ty Cline get paid to…” Fultz said.
“Objection!” Atterberry said again in a near shout. “Same grounds.”
There was no payment, but there was consideration, the judge said before telling Fultz to continue.
“He was determined he was going to get the benefit of his bargain,” Fultz said calmly. “Mr. Atterberry objects to the term ‘paid.’ I asked Ty Cline, ‘You had a price, didn’t you? And they paid your price, didn’t they? (He said) Yes.’”
Atterberry couldn’t object this time, because that was exactly what was said during testimony.
Fultz also dismissed testimony from Dillen’s teacher and a wrestling coach who praised the teen after a psychologist hired by the defense testified that Dillen was at risk for committing violent acts because he had a history of violent behavior, a lousy home life, and a tough time at school, in part due to attention deficit disorder.
“It just happens to be another inconvenient truth in this case,” Fultz said. “Does it shock anyone in this room that these teachers came in yesterday, knowing what we know, and said things like ‘He was energetic. He was frustrated easily?’ Anyone think it was peculiar that Alex Dawson, the wrestling coach, kept saying that one of his criticisms of Dillen was that he didn’t show aggression? Do you think that Alex Dawson, when he walked through that door, didn’t know why he was being called? And he did what every teacher should. He tried to protect that child.”
Near the end, Fultz recalled a Johnny Cash song called “One Piece At A Time” that tells the tale of an auto worker who sneaks car parts out of the factory for years until, finally, he collects enough to build a Cadillac.
“When we started this whole thing a month ago, the state treated this whole thing, this whole episode, as if it was so straightforward, so clear cut, so obvious – this shiny new car that they drove into this courtroom was perfect,” Fultz said. “Nothing fits. It runs. But, as Mr. Harris told you about his truck on the stand, it’s a piece of crap. Take a little bit from Ty Cline, take a little bit more from another interview with Jason Harris – add all these things up from the murderer and the perjurer and that’s your story. Now, just drive that Cadillac right into that jury room and convict this man. Really?”
Keeping it simple
If Fultz had moved the jury, he still had one problem: Logan County state’s attorney Jonathan Wright.
The prosecution gets the last word in a murder trial, and Wright took full advantage by not getting complicated during a rebuttal statement lasting less than 45 minutes.
“I’m not going to come to you with Johnny Cash lyrics,” he promised as he began.
And he didn’t. Instead, Wright boiled the prosecution’s case to its essence.
“The words and actions of Christopher Harris prove his own guilt in this case,” Wright said. “He did what a guilty person does. Why did Christopher Harris do…what a guilty person does? Here’s why he’s doing what a guilty person does: because he’s guilty.”
Fled the scene. Lied to the cops. Burned his clothing. Stole the Gees’ laptop computer because he was afraid a webcam had captured what he had done. Got rid of his shoes and bought new ones one size larger in an attempt to throw off police, knowing they would test his footwear against bloody prints found in the house.
While Fultz said that prosecutors were riding the horse of a perjurer to a guilty verdict, Wright told jurors to consider the testimony of the defendant, who testified that he first noticed Dillen when he heard the floor creak behind him in a carpeted home. Then there was the tire iron that the defendant says he grabbed from the floor, even though he was in a bedroom, the iron was in a hallway outside the other end of the bedroom and Dillen, covered in blood, was in front of him with a knife.
“Dillen’s in full throttle, he’s a maniacal killer, he’s got no injuries but he can’t make a mark on him (Harris),” Wright said. “Somehow, he (Harris) gets…across the bedroom to get the tire iron. Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I’m perfectly content riding his (the defendant’s) horse to a guilty verdict. Because it doesn’t fit.”
Then there is a timeline problematic for a defendant who says that the massacre was over when he arrived. Both the defendant and Jason Harris testified that they were in McLean around midnight before they drove to Beason, which is about 16 minutes away. The Gees were alive until at least 12:42 a.m., when Rick Gee sent an online message to someone with no indication of anything amiss.
“A fifteen-and-a-half minute drive, he (the defendant) testifies, goes an hour,” Wright said.
Fultz had told the jury that the bodies cry out with evidence. Wright said the same thing.
“You know what Dillen is crying out?” Wright said. “’I was hit 52 times.’ The back of his head is saying ‘I was hit on the back of my head.’ He’s hit on the ground when he’s not moving.”
Wright also noted that all five of the deceased had similar wounds.
“’We were all killed in the same way’ – that’s what they’re telling you,” Wright said. “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, it flies against common sense that Dillen killed his family and Christopher Harris stumbled across it and then killed Dillen in the same m.o.”
Dillen, Wright said, is just one more person that Harris has falsely accused, just as he wrongly accused Pudge Koehler and others before his own arrest. Dillen, gravely wounded, somehow got up after being hit with a tire iron and went back into the house to save the family he loved, Wright said.
“Christopher Harris has a real hard time understanding why Dillen would go back in that house, because it’s a foreign concept to him,” Wright said. “For Christopher Harris, it’s all about Christopher Harris. For Dillen, that was his dad and his mom and is sister and his baby sister. He wasn’t worried about a computer. He was worried about his family.”
Wright finished within minutes. The jury left the courtroom. Between defense and prosecution, it had been the most passionate lawyering of the trial now a month old. Wright walked to Judy Stogdell, Rick Gee’s mother who had sat in the front row throughout.
“Now,” the prosecutor told her, “we wait.”
Contact Bruce Rushton at email@example.com.