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Clara Harris Guilty of Murder

Aired February 13, 2003 - 10:41   ET


LEON HARRIS, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to get back to the other scene that we were watching moments ago, this courtroom at the Harris County courthouse in Houston, Texas, where Clara Harris, the dentist, who is accused of having killed her husband by running over him a number of times with a Mercedes vehicle, murder by Mercedes, as this case has been known. We understand that a verdict has been reached by the jury in this case. That is Clara Harris right there, the defendant, and we've been watching her nervously fidgeting as this jury is supposed to come into the courtroom.
While we're waiting on the jury, let's bring in our legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin, who is standing by in New York to talk about what is happening in this trial and what we may be seeing happening here this morning.

Jeffrey, are you surprised at all by the fact that this jury has reached a verdict in what seemed to be pretty short order here?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Very fast. Remember, they started deliberating mid to late afternoon yesterday. And it's a little after 9:00, and came back on the following morning. So this is in the order of the O.J. criminal jury, how fast a verdict it is. I am surprised. It's very fast.

As I understand it, the only thing that's happened between today, right now, and yesterday afternoon was the jury asked for the rereading of some testimony. Is that correct?

HARRIS: That's right. And I think it's very important what testimony they asked for. They asked to hear some of the prosecution's cross-examination of Clara Harris, about what statements she made to the police that were somewhat contradictory to her testimony in front of the jury. I think it's safe to say that that note that the jury sent was a favorable note for the prosecution. That's a note that the prosecution was encouraged by, and I think as a consequence of that, they're probably encouraged by how quickly the jury has come back.

TOOBIN: OK, give us your version of the highlights of this trial as it's unfolded over the last couple of weeks?

HARRIS: Well, I think whenever you have a defendant testify, that's always the highlight of the trial. Here, you have a real struggle here, because the -- just to go over the prosecution's case first, I think the most important testimony there was of the 17-year- old stepdaughter of Clara Harris, the daughter of David Harris, the murder victim, who was in the car with Clara Harris when she ran over her husband, very damaging testimony, testimony that suggested this wasn't a purely emotional outburst but, in fact, a conscience attempt by Clara Harris to murder her husband. Very damaging testimony.

On the other side, Clara Harris was, by all accounts, a very sympathetic person. Her husband certainly came through as an absolute pig, you know, sitting there over cocktails comparing his wife and his girlfriend, writing down who was fatter, who was nicer to sleep with. I mean, really...

HARRIS: And which one need add breast job.

TOOBIN: Yes, well, Clara Harris signed up for breast augmentation, didn't actually get it. So she's a sympathetic person, but I think in terms of the actual evidence of what happened including at the very end, rebuttal testimony by the prosecution, eyewitnesses who saw Clara Harris very much appearing to hit her husband intentionally. I mean, it seemed to me a pretty strong case by the prosecution.

HARRIS: Our very own Art Harris has been watching this trial there in Harris County in Houston, Texas, and he's been covering it. He joins us from outside the courthouse right there.

What have you been hearing, Art, about when this verdict was reached and when we might actually hear it?

ART HARRIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Any minute now. I was sitting in the courtroom, when the bailiff came out, and the jury had reached a verdict and word put out to the media to come back to the courtroom, and you've seen Clara Harris waiting nervously in the courtroom and her attorneys before the jury comes back and gives us the verdict.

As Jeffrey mentioned, the rebuttal testimony that was reread late yesterday was considered very crucial, and that had to do with Clara Harris' state of mind. She was a most effective witness for her own defense, but she didn't remember a lot of what she told the police after the killing, which was, I meant to separate him from her, her being the mistress in the parking lot, and I wanted to hurt him. She told that to police. What she then said was, I really just wanted to hurt him emotionally. But the jury wanted that reread, and, therefore, what some are thinking is that this could be her state of mind, and that could speak to the intent, and intent was necessary to find her guilty of murder or lesser charges -- Leon.

HARRIS: Art, let me ask you this. I know you couldn't get a chance to talk with any of the members of the jury, or maybe if there had been alternates in there, but I'm sure you were able to gauge reaction by those in the audience there. What did you make of the fact one of the last bits of testimony that we heard all came on behalf of Clara Harris, and it came from the parents of David Harris, the victim in this case, who testified she was a great woman, and they basically supported her?

ART HARRIS: So unusual, Leon, to have the victim's family, the parents, come and testify for the accused killer. And that was extremely powerful. The mother of David Harris looked at the jury, and beamed, looked at Clara and smiled, Clara smiled back, and so a powerful message was sent to the jury that, in effect, the family of the dead man had acquitted her, forgiven her, and they, perhaps, should do the same.

Now, whether that registered or not, we will not know. But Mia Magma (ph) said you've got to put sympathy aside, look at this woman, call her what she is, and that's a murderer. So we'll hear shortly, Leon, what the jury has decided.

HARRIS: All right. We'll go back to Jeffrey Toobin in New York.

Jeffrey, give us a rundown what it is right now the jury may be considering, because when you come to the verdict here, as I understand it, the jury has four different options?

TOOBIN: There are three charges, four options. The three charges are intentional murder, which is exactly what it is, intending to kill someone and killing someone. Then there is manslaughter, which the key element there is recklessness. A classic example of manslaughter is firing a gun into a wall of an apartment building, knowing there are people next door. You're not knowing who you're going to kill, but you know you might well kill somebody. And then the final option is criminally negligent homicide, which is the least charge.

There, the classic example is putting rat poison in a sugar bowl and then putting it out to see who -- to see if anyone uses it. That's the kind of choices that are available to the jury.

Leon, one other factor to keep in mind, very important here, Texas is unusual in that the jury plays a very big role in sentencing, unlike in many states. So if Clara Harris is convicted of any of these charges, the jury will then come back, hey...

HARRIS: We see the judge is now back in the courtroom, and let's listen in.

JUDGE CAROL DAVIES, HARRIS CO. TEXAS DIST.: A verdict, are both sides ready? The jury?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The defense is ready, your honor.

DAVIES: OK, bring the jury in, please.

Ladies and gentlemen, I want to remind everyone, some of you may be pleased, some displeased with the verdict. But regardless, you will remain seated and silent. There will be no visible displays of your pleasure or displeasure with the verdict. If you can't follow those instructions, leave the courtroom now.


DAVIES: Madam foreman, has jury reached a verdict? And it is unanimous? All right, would you please give the paperwork to the bailiff for me?

Please remain standing.

"We, the jury, find the defendant Clara L. Harris guilty of murder as charged in the indictment." And that is signed by the presiding juror.

Then on the special issue, "Do you the jury find beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant used or exhibited a deadly weapon, namely, a motor vehicle, during the commission of the offense for which she has been convicted or during the immediate flight therefrom?" The answer, "We do." And, again, that is signed by the presiding juror.

The verdict appears to be in proper form. Does the other side wish to have the jury polled?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, your honor, we do.

DAVIES: All right. Be seated.

All right, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I am going to pose this question to each of you. I'm not going to repeat the question each time, but the question that I'm going to ask each of you to answer in turn is, is the verdict that I just read, guilty of murder, your individual verdict? And, secondly, is your answer to the special issue, we do, your verdict?

And I'm going to start on the back row at the end, and we'll go through the 12 jurors in sequence.

First juror on the end. As to both.

Second row on the far end. OK.

All right, each of the 12 jurors have affirmed the verdict that it will be received and entered into the records of the court.

OK, Ladies and gentlemen, having received your verdict, now, we need to move to the second stage of trial, which will be the punishment or sentencing hearing. I think the lawyers need a few minutes to get ready for that. We're going to recess for 30 minutes.

Now, once again, do not discuss the case among yourselves or with anyone else, until you continue your -- or until the point that I tell you to begin your deliberation, on the sentencing issue again, all the same instructions are in place.

HARRIS: And with that, we have now got the official word from the jury. The jury has found Clara Harris guilty of murder, which was the most serious charge she was facing in this matter of running over her husband in the parking lot at the Hilton Hotel there in Texas.

Let's bring in Jeffrey Toobin, our legal analyst in New York, who's been listening in on this. Jeffrey, you said going into this that it probably meant good news for the prosecution for the jury to come back so quickly, and that's apparently what turned out here.

TOOBIN: Yes, this was a lightning-fast jury verdict. And Harris County's a tough place. If Harris County was a separate state, it would have the third most people on death row of any state in the United States.

HARRIS: That's right.

TOOBIN: Except for the rest of Texas, and for Florida, I mean, this isn't a death penalty case, but it gives you some sense of how tough jurors are in Houston, and you know, they maybe were sympathetic. They will have another chance, if they want to show some sympathy to Clara Harris, because they will play a big role now in determining what the sentence is, and the big phrase you're going to start to hear a lot about now is sudden passion.

HARRIS: OK, let's talk about this, then, since you bring it up here. This is not a death penalty case. In fact, why not, and if it's sent to this, what exactly could the penalty possibly be here?

TOOBIN: That's a decision by the prosecutor in advance of trial, whether to seek the death penalty. They decided not to seek it. It was never on the table in this trial. However, it is a possibility that Clara Harris will get life in prison, and the jury -- this is, again, an unusual aspect of Texas law. Most states, it's really the judge that handles virtually all of the sentencing.

Here, the jury play as very major role in recommending a sentence. The judge has some oversight over that, and the jury is going move immediately into deciding what the sentence will be.

HARRIS: Let's go to our Art Harris, who's positioned outside the Harris County courthouse there.

Art, what's the word from your perspective there?

ART HARRIS: Well, Leon, this is, obviously, a setback for the defense that tried very hard to portray her as a sympathetic. The prosecutor told the jury that they had to put aside any sympathy they had and consider her state of mind, her intent, and they have done that, and they found her guilty of murder. That brings a possible sentence, as Jeffrey pointed out, here in Texas of five to life with a $10,000 fine as the upper end.

Now, the other option is sudden passion is found, that can reduce the sentence considerably, if think she acted in a fit of sudden passion to two to 20 years, and even probation. And it's one of the very unusual and very few states where it is said that a person can be found guilty of murder, and ride down in the same elevator with the jury -- Leon.

HARRIS: Interesting. I'm going to ask you both about that, Jeffrey, let's bring Jeffrey and Art together here. Do we know exactly what happens next to her after the person is found guilty of a charge like this in Texas, particularly here in Houston, in Harris County, does this person go immediately to jail? Is this allowed to leave on their own recognizance, or what?

TOOBIN: It's usually up to the judge. I'm sorry, let's art go first.

HARRIS: Go ahead, art.

ART HARRIS: Well, I know right now she is out on $30,000 bond. She's not considered a flight risk. And so I think there would be some leeway. I'm sure appeals would be filed. The defense has gone out of their way to have every possible appealable ground admitted into the record, in case this would come to pass, and it has -- Jeff.

HARRIS: I'm sorry, Jeff, hate to cut you off. We've got some other breaking news we have to get to right now, but don't worry, Jeff, we'll bring you back later to you about it some more.

Jeffrey Toobin and Art Harris, thanks much for joining us on this breaking news. Clara Harris being found guilty of murder in Houston, Texas.


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