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Feb. 14, 2003, 12:11AM

Harris legal defense strategy wins praise

But multipronged approach not enough for acquittal

By ALLAN TURNER
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

Faced with the harsh reality that their client was at the wheel of the 4,000-pound Mercedes-Benz that crushed her husband, Clara Harris' attorneys launched a multipronged defense that portrayed her as a good woman wronged and suggested that David Harris' death was the result of an accident.

In weeks of testimony that had trial spectators queuing up hours before the courtroom opened, defense lawyers brought the dead Clear Lake orthodontist's father, mother and brother to the stand to endorse the defendant's character; called his mistress to testify about their adulterous affair; and portrayed the victim as not only unfaithful but psychologically abusive.

Clara Harris was found guilty of murder Thursday, and it's clear the defense team's strategy didn't work. Still, Houston lawyers who followed the trial -- either in the courtroom or through press accounts -- found the strategy ingenious.

Harris, 45, could face life in prison for her murder conviction after being found guilty of running over her husband in a fit of jealousy July 24. Houston defense lawyer Anthony Osso lauded Harris' legal team for its multifaceted approach.

"You have 12 different personalities, different races, different backgrounds, and you never know what might appeal to a single juror," Osso said. "You want as much information out there as you can."

David Crump, a University of Houston law professor, noted that the defense team pinned its hopes on the accident theory. Throughout the trial, lead defense counsel George Parnham carefully nurtured the possibility that his client had not deliberately killed her husband.

On cross-examination, Parnham highlighted prosecution witness Lindsey Harris' testimony that she did not believe her stepmother was serious when she proclaimed she could kill her husband and get away with it.

At the heart of the defense case was the question of how many times Harris ran over her husband. Parnham and his associates worked assiduously to convince jurors it was only once.

Key to their argument was the testimony of Dallas accident "reconstructionist" Steve Irwin, who presented high-tech diagrams to buttress his contention that the Mercedes struck David Harris, carried him on its hood, pitched him to the ground and ran over him once.

Irwin also testified that the height of the sport utility vehicle beside which the victim was standing would have precluded Clara Harris from seeing her husband in time to stop.

Osso agreed that an accident defense was "not far-fetched." But lawyer Brian Wice thought the accident strategy was Parnham's biggest mistake.

"There is no accident defense in Texas," he said.

In her final arguments, prosecutor Mia Magness made the same point, adding, "An accident is just another word for `reckless.' "

Chip Lewis, a former prosecutor, suggested that a jury agreeing with the accident theory would be compelled to find Harris guilty of manslaughter.

Wice praised Parnham for calling Gail Bridges, David Harris' mistress, to the stand, noting that fabled defense lawyer Percy Foreman once asserted that a good defense should include testimony from a witness jurors can hate more than one's client.

Testifying as an unlikely defense witness, Bridges described for jurors how she dated David Harris after he assured her he had an "open marriage."

Later, when Clara Harris took the stand -- quoting Bridges and mockingly asking, "You know the way she talks?" -- several jurors nodded in agreement.

Lawyers contacted for this story agreed that Harris proved an effective witness. Crump said defense lawyers should always allow their clients to testify "unless they can't."

"In this case," he said, "it was a very good thing."

Osso agreed, noting that while jurors generally endeavor to follow the law regarding a defendant's right against self-incrimination, "in their hearts they typically want to hear what the defendant has to say."

As telling as the defendant's tales of her husband's infidelity, Osso suggested, was her portrayal of him as "a user." He cited Clara Harris' testimony of how she supported her husband after he was fired from a chain dental clinic, and the role she played in the couple's six suburban dental clinics.

Parnham handled the issue with a gentle touch, noting in final arguments that the defendant's early financial support of the family was only a measure of her love, but still made his point.

Osso, Lewis and Wice lauded Parnham's decision to call members of the victim's family to the stand to endorse Clara Harris' character. David Harris' parents, Gerald and Mildred Harris, and his brother Gerald Harris Jr. all agreed that the couple had a good marriage before the victim began his affair. His mother called it a "marriage made in heaven."

She also testified that her daughter-in-law, whom she regarded as a daughter, loved her son intensely.

"Sometimes," she told jurors, "I thought she loved him too much."

Gerald Harris told jurors the family did not support the orthodontist's adultery.

"I really like that he presented the family of the decedent," Osso said. "It says a lot about Clara Harris' character."

Especially important, he said, was that all of the immediate family members testified on the defendant's behalf.

"What strikes me as the most effective strategy," Lewis added, "is the use of the family. It's very difficult to get that type of support from a victim's family. They were supporting a loved one, but they did it with such class.

"These people are not bums. They are exceptional people -- first, to forgive someone in a situation like this and second, in the quality of their presentation."

Wice suggested the jury's view of Clara Harris might have been favorably affected by Magness' aggressive cross-examination of some of the Harris family members.

"Mia needs to learn that when cross-examining, it is not necessary to examine crossly," Wice said. "Juries absolutely don't like a lawyer beating up on somebody's mother."

Some defense strategies -- notably linking Bridges with her purported lesbian lover in a plan to bilk David Harris -- failed to gel. Attempts to draw testimony from Bridges on the subject died amid prosecution objections.

And a later attempt by defense co-counsel Dee McWilliams to reopen the matter was rejected by the judge.

Throughout the trial, defense lawyers elicited testimony that portrayed David Harris negatively.

"It's the defense role to dehumanize the victim," Crump said, "to make it appear that his death is not that serious. It's the prosecution's role to counter that."

Osso said that discrediting a victim and lessening his stature can be an "effective tool," especially when it's done in a trial's guilt-innocence stage. Wice said the defense "walked a fine line in demonizing David," running the risk of too harshly criticizing a victim.

In often-tearful testimony, Clara Harris told jurors of how her wayward husband compared her strengths and weaknesses with those of his lover, and of how she endeavored to improve her appearance to regain his favor. She testified that her husband had pledged to end his affair, but, instead of meeting Bridges to halt the relationship, he checked into the Hilton hotel with her.

The loyalty that Clara Harris evinced toward her husband was, perhaps unintentionally, highlighted in testimony from prosecution witnesses.

"He was the love of her life," said Cathey Davis, the orthodontist's office manager. "It was obvious."

Equally obvious, workers in his office testified, was their boss's adultery. So thick was the flirtation, worker Diana Sherrill told jurors, that some of her colleagues became physically ill.

Clara Harris' teenage stepdaughter, Lindsey, testified that she was appalled when she witnessed her father flirting with Bridges and saw the receptionist provocatively bend over in his presence.



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