Assoc. Press, Thursday, February 13, 2003
Clara Harris Found Guilty of Murder
HOUSTON - A woman who ran down her cheating husband with her Mercedes after catching him with his mistress was convicted of murder Thursday despite her tearful claim that she hit him accidentally, while in a heartsick daze.
Clara Harris, 45, could get a life sentence, or a lesser punishment if the jury concludes she acted with "sudden passion." Two jurors wept as the judge returned the verdict against the mother of young twins.
Harris showed no emotion as she listened to the verdict. But she burst into sobs as the penalty phase began with her 17-year-old stepdaughter confiding on the witness stand that she had attempted suicide four times since her father's death last July. The teenager was a passenger in the Mercedes that day.
"I'm sorry, Lindsey! I'm sorry, baby!" Harris cried, prompting the judge to admonish her to get ahold of herself. The trial will resume Friday.
Harris, a dentist who shared a practice with her orthodontist husband, insisted David Harris' death in a hotel parking lot was an accident. She said that she was in a daze and wanted only to damage the black Lincoln Navigator belonging to her husband's receptionist-turned-lover, Gail Bridges.
"I think I closed my eyes," Harris testified. "After that, I didn't know who was driving. Everything seemed like a dream."
Defense experts said the Mercedes' turning radius and other evidence indicated she hit him only once. Her lawyers also branded Bridges a "homewrecker," while David Harris' parents testified in support of their daughter-in-law and said the couple's marriage was "made in heaven."
But prosecutors said witnesses' accounts, bloodstains on the underside of the car and tire tracks on the body all showed she ran him over at least twice. A grainy videotape recorded by a private investigator Clara Harris had hired to follow Bridges shows the Mercedes circling the lot repeatedly.
Besides murder, the jury considered charges of manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.
According to Clara Harris' own testimony, she was devastated by her 44-year-old husband's philandering.
After he confessed to his nearly three-month affair, the couple had a discussion at a bar in which he compared the two women point by point. According to notes his wife jotted on a bar napkin, he described his lover as "reasonably" pretty, "reasonably" smart and "reasonably" educated, and portrayed his wife as an overweight workaholic who dominated conversations.
On the witness stand, Harris described a desperate bid to save her marriage after learning of the affair. She told the jury she quit her job, had sex with her husband three times a night, cooked his favorite meals and hired a personal trainer.
She said she even went to a tanning salon and scheduled liposuction and breast enlargement surgery to make her husband happy, only to catch him a few days later in a tryst at the same hotel where the Harrises were married on Valentine's Day 1992.
Clara Harris and Bridges got into a hair-pulling fight in the lobby after she caught the two lovers holding hands when he was supposed to be breaking off the relationship. David Harris was killed in the parking lot moments later.
The question at the center of the case was Clara Harris' intent when she got behind the wheel.
Prosecutors said she was in a murderous, jealous rage, and they called a half-dozen witnesses who said they watched in disbelief as the woman ran over her husband repeatedly -- perhaps as many as five times.
One of the most powerful witnesses was David Harris' daughter, Lindsey, who has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against her stepmother. She said that moments before the attack, Clara Harris said she could kill her husband and get away with it.
"She stepped on the accelerator and went straight for him," the teenager testified. "He was really scared. He was trying to get away and he couldn't."
Clara Harris testified that the time between her stepping on the accelerator and stopping to see her husband's body on the pavement were a "dream" to her.
"I was in so much pain, it was a physical pain that I was feeling. I wasn't thinking anything," Harris testified. "Suddenly, I thought about smashing my car against her car and then I (picked) up speed."
Harris said she saw three figures near Bridges' Navigator. Two dodged right, she said, but her husband moved left, toward her approaching Mercedes. She said she glimpsed her husband: "I saw some surprised eyes."
Defense attorney George Parnham suggested his client be given probation.
"She has been a law-abiding citizen throughout her life," he said. "She as a result of this verdict will no longer have a dental practice. She is an excellent candidate for community supervision."
Parnham also called the victim's father, Gerald Harris, to again testify on his daughter-in-law's behalf.
"Our motivation stems from the word forgiveness," Harris said. "We feel like a member of our family has erred and we forgive that. We don't feel like Clara intended to kill David."