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Feb. 14, 2003, 9:47AM

Jurors decide it was murder, now ponder her sentence

By ALLAN TURNER
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

After hearing weeks of emotion-packed testimony about love, jealousy and violent death, jurors Thursday found Lake Jackson dentist Clara Harris guilty of murder in the July 24 automobile attack on her adulterous husband.

At least two members of the panel of nine women and three men wept as their verdict was read shortly after 9 a.m.

The conviction could send Harris to prison for five to 99 years or life. If sentenced to 10 years or less, she would be eligible for probation.

If jurors determine that Harris killed her husband in "sudden passion," she could be eligible for a prison sentence as short as two years.

The jury also found that Harris had used her S-body Mercedes-Benz sedan as a deadly weapon -- a finding that would keep her in prison during her appeals and require her to serve half of her assessed sentence before she could become eligible for parole.

The jurors, who received the case about noon Wednesday, deliberated for slightly more than eight hours before announcing the decision. They are set to begin considering Harris' punishment today.

Harris, 45, was accused of running over her husband, orthodontist David Harris, in a fit of jealous rage after she found him with his mistress at a Clear Lake-area hotel.

The victim, 44, suffered massive injuries in the attack, including 16 broken ribs and a broken back, jaw, collarbone and pelvis. His lungs were punctured and a blood vessel to his heart torn.

The murder vehicle, a 2000 model valued at $55,125, was impounded by police and will become part of David Harris' estate.

Clara Harris, who frequently cried openly during the trial, stood dry-eyed as the verdict was delivered. Defense attorneys George Parnham and Emily Munoz gently gripped her arms.

A short time later, however, she burst into tears as prosecutor Mia Magness questioned the state's only witness in the punishment phase, the defendant's 17-year-old stepdaughter, Lindsey Harris.

Asked about the quality of her life since her father's murder, the teen was testifying about two incidents in which she slashed her wrists when state District Judge Carol G. Davies called for a short break.

As jurors filed from the courtroom, Clara Harris stood at the defense table and sobbed, "I'm sorry, Lindsey. I'm sorry, baby."

"Be quiet!" Davies commanded.

"I'm sorry. I'm sorry," Harris continued.

"Be quiet!" Davies said again before sternly warning Harris for the fourth time during the trial that she would be removed if she continued to disrupt proceedings.

Although Harris controlled her emotions and remained in the courtroom, two members of the audience later left when Davies admonished spectators to stop reacting emotionally to the proceedings or leave.

Lindsey Harris -- who lives with her mother and stepfather in Ohio -- told jurors she had a "great" relationship with her father.

"I talked to him on the phone every other day," she said. "We were the same person. We finished each other's sentences."

The teen testified that they shared interests, including music, athletics and dentistry.

"I planned to come to college down here and spend the rest of my life down here," she said. "Everything was planned. It was just perfect. And then it was ruined."

She told jurors of the harrowing minutes when, as a passenger in her stepmother's car, she recognized that her father would die.

"I saw his eyes," she said of the incident in the parking lot of the Nassau Bay Hilton. "I felt so bad that I couldn't help him. He couldn't get away. He was so scared and I couldn't do anything.

"It was terrifying. She was killing him. I would never see him again. I never got to say goodbye. I only got to spend 16 1/2 years with him. I had plans. It just wasn't fair."

Once she returned to the family's Friendswood home, she testified, she found her father's clothing in a garbage can -- placed there by a nanny on the instructions of Clara Harris.

The daughter said she brought the clothes upstairs and put them on her bed, then got her father's possessions from his bathroom and closet and brought them to her room.

"I felt like he was there with me," she said.

Lindsey Harris testified that she fantasized that the reason she could not talk with her father was that he was away on business. Once an A student, she said, she began making Ds. She dropped out of a cheerleading program, lost her friends and no longer cared about becoming an orthodontist.

The teenager said she slipped into depression, underwent counseling and was placed on mood-altering medication.

"It made things worse," she said. "I was just numb."

She told jurors she has become estranged from her grandparents, Mildred and Gerald Harris, who have continued to support their daughter-in-law. She suggested that their support of the killer stemmed in part from financial reasons linked to their son's estate.

Gerald Harris, the defense's first witness in the punishment phase, denied his granddaughter's claim.

"No, sir," said the former high school principal. "That hasn't anything to do with it. I don't expect to get anything out of it.

"Our motivation stems from the word `forgiveness,' " Harris said. "This tragedy has been a strong blow to our family. God has forgiven our sins. We can forgive a member of our family when she has erred."

He told jurors that he and his wife, Mildred, are seeking to gain guardianship of Clara Harris' 4-year-old twin sons.

Gerald Harris, his wife and son, Gerald Jr., were among witnesses called by Parnham to testify that Clara Harris would be a good candidate for probation. Others included her minister, an across-the-street neighbor and the former Colombian consul-general for Texas and Oklahoma.

Defense attorneys elicited testimony that Harris could support her children, hold a job, live as a law-abiding citizen and comply with community-service requirements -- all conditions for probation. She would not be able to perform dental work as community service, however, because she will lose her license because of the murder conviction.

As testimony continued into the afternoon, she continually wrote on a yellow legal pad or gazed at photographs she had placed in front of her on the defense table. The subject of her writing or the content of the photos could not be determined.

Both the prosecution and defense rested their cases late Thursday afternoon, with Parnham asking that all evidence introduced in the trial's guilt-innocence phase be made available to jurors to support a "sudden passion" defense.

David Harris was killed after his wife and daughter found him with his mistress, Gail Bridges, in the lobby of the Nassau Bay Hilton. Testimony showed that Clara Harris was involved in a physical altercation with Bridges before the group was escorted to the parking lot.

Final arguments are expected today, which would have been the 11th wedding anniversary for Harris and her husband.

Harris, who was required to remove her wedding ring and other jewelry, was allowed to say goodbye to her family before being taken to the Harris County Jail, where she will be lodged pending the completion of sentencing.

Chronicle reporters Lisa Teachey, Ruth Rendon and Leigh Hopper contributed to this story.



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