The curtain closer
Prosecution's case likely done
A murder trial has something in common with a fireworks show.
In both cases, eye-catching flares – or witnesses – grab attention early on. Then a certain rhythm sets in: When, oh when, will we ever be through with those giant firecrackers, or forensic scientists, that make nothing more than noise, or explain the finer points of DNA analysis and answer such vexing questions as “What is blood?”
Ultimately, there is the grand finale, the part that pyrotechnicians, or prosecutors, want to leave a lasting impression, either through a whole bunch of shells going off all at once or through witnesses whose testimony is so unforgettable, so ironclad, that conviction is all but certain.
Prosecutors seemed to fall short in the murder trial of Christopher Harris. Nothing sings done-deal quite like a lawyer saying “the prosecution rests” upon the state’s last witness leaving the courtroom, but that didn’t happen on Wednesday afternoon, when testimony ended more than an hour early and Logan County state’s attorney Jonathan Wright asked for, and received, a night to think things over while the defense’s first witnesses had been in the courthouse, ready to testify.
The prosecution could still call an oh-by-the-way witness to give a detail here or a detail there, a surprise bombshell witness or an overlooked videotape of the defendant killing five people with a tire iron being highly unlikely. But the defense in all probability will begin presenting its case on Friday without further word from prosecutors, whose last witnesses, while powerful, may not prove the hoped-for grand finale to close the deal.
Ty Cline, the state’s first of two witnesses on Thursday, had at least one thing going for him: His first statement to police came after he was sentenced for first-degree murder in the killing of a three-year-old boy, and he spoke on videotape in January, 2012 without any assurance of any kind of deal, although he eventually got one.
“He (Harris) said he snapped and killed everybody – he just lost it,” Cline testified in recounting what he had first told police about what his cellmate had told him.
“And that was before you got any kind of deal?” asked assistant attorney general Steven Nate.
In exchange for his testimony on Thursday, Cline, who was Harris’ cellmate for 18 months in the Logan County jail, has been transferred from a maximum security prison to a medium-security facility, where he enjoys considerably more time out of his cell and more access to visitors. Defense attorney Daniel Fultz hammered on that point after Cline acknowledged that he had told prosecutors that he would not testify unless he got out of Stateville Correctional Center, where he was locked down 23 hours a day.
“Doing the right thing came with your price, didn’t it?” said Fultz, who nearly shouted at the witness during cross examination.
“Correct,” Cline said.
“And they paid your price, didn’t they?” the defense attorney asked.
“You wouldn’t let me talk to you (before trial) would you?”
“No,” the witness answered.
“Was that because you’re interested in doing the right thing or because I had nothing to offer you?” Fultz asked.
But Cline’s testimony, bought or not, hurt the defense. His testimony on Thursday essentially matched the account he gave more than a year ago, when police unexpectedly pulled him into an interview room after he’d been sentenced and was on his way to prison. His account generally jibed with that of Jason Harris’, the accused’s brother who told jurors that he stood outside a Beason home nearly four years ago while Christopher Harris killed Raymond “Rick” Gee, Rick’s wife Ruth and three of the couple’s children with a tire iron.
Cline testified that Harris told him that he and Jason had been drinking and going to bars in the hours leading up to the slayings. Cline said that the defendant told him that he and his brother had obtained cocaine from Jason’s boss before heading to Beason, which matches Jason Harris’ story. Like Jason Harris, Cline testified that the defendant never said anything about self defense, although the defense says that Dillen Constant, 14, had killed his family and then attacked Christopher Harris with a tire iron when the defendant arrived unexpectedly.
Cline’s testimony differed from Jason Harris’ account in at least one key respect. Jason Harris told jurors that the defendant had a tire iron with him when he knocked on the door of the Gee home. Cline, however, said that the defendant fetched a tire iron from somewhere outside after Rick Gee answered the door and a confrontation of some sort ensued. Under questioning by Fultz, Cline said that Harris told him that he and Rick Gee engaged in “hand-to-hand combat” in the home’s foyer. However, little if any blood was found just inside the home’s front door.
A pathologist’s view
Any battle between Harris and Rick Gee would have been a one-sided fight, according to Dr. John Ralston, who conducted autopsies on the five victims and was the day’s last witness.
Rick Gee was just four feet, eleven inches tall, weighed 122 pounds and had emphysema so severe that he would have become easily winded, Ralston testified. By contrast, the defendant is about five feet ten inches tall, weighs about 180 pounds and was much bigger than any of the victims. Ruth Gee was slightly more than five feet tall and weighed 125 pounds; Justina Constant, 16, was five feet six inches tall and weighed 103 pounds; Austin Gee, 11, was four feet, nine inches tall and weighed 64 pounds and Dillen Constant was five feet eight inches tall and weighed 124 pounds.
Wounds were so numerous, severe and concentrated in such tight areas, particularly on heads, that it wasn’t possible to determine how many times each victim had been struck, according to Ralston, who used words like “pulp” to describe the damage. Dillen suffered a minimum of 52 blows, Rick was hit at least 39 times, Ruth suffered at least 28 blows, Austin suffered at least 21 and Justina was struck at least 15 times, the doctor said.
The defense concentrated on three injuries to Dillen, Rick and Austin.
Austin suffered a horrific skull fracture that likely came from being stomped, Ralston testified. The person who did it likely wore a shoe, which isn’t good for the defense, since Dillen Constant was barefoot. The doctor held firm even when Fultz held up a shoe taken from the defendant and handed it to the doctor.
“It’s possible,” Ralston said of the barefooted stomp scenario. “It’s not likely.”
Dillen suffered a cut on a cheek that could have been caused by a sharp instrument such as a knife, Ralston testified. Rick had three cuts on his right hand. While those cuts could have been caused by the end of a tire iron, they were more likely caused by a knife, Ralston testified. On the other hand, the wounds more resembled the sort that results from a knife slipping in someone’s hand than defensive wounds caused when someone who is being attacked puts up their hands for protection.
Dillen’s blood was found on a knife recovered outside the home, and both Jason Harris and Cline testified that the defendant said that the teen had come at him with a knife. Furthermore, Jennifer Aper, an Illinois State Police forensic scientist, had testified on Tuesday that an investigator had said during a lab meeting that “the father had knife wounds on hands that are consistent with him using a knife to stab someone.” Dillen has a cut on his cheek, his stepfather had cuts on his hand, and so the defense hopes to sell the jury a story of a son-on-stepfather fight that happened before Harris arrived.
“The injuries that Dillen Constant suffered could have been inflicted by Rick Gee, right?” Fultz asked Ralston.
“That is possible,” the doctor answered.
The make-or-break for the defense will likely come Friday, when Christopher Harris is expected to take the stand and tell jurors his version of what happened that deadly night.
Contact Bruce Rushton at email@example.com.