Feb. 13, 2003, 11:57AM

Clara Harris convicted of murder

Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

Clara Harris listens to the verdict with her lawyers.

Jurors convicted Clara Harris of murder today for running over her husband outside a Clear Lake-area hotel on July 24 after finding him with his mistress.

The jury next must consider what punishment the 45-year-old mother of twins deserves. She has been free on bond so far and has retained custody of her 4-year-old sons, but she must now go to jail.

Harris may face life in prison, but could receive a much lighter sentence. The other possibilities:

• If the jury comes back with a sentence of 10 years or less and recommends probation, Judge Carol Davies must grant probation. The judge could order her release right away but is more likely to make it a condition of probation that Harris serve up to six months in the Harris County Jail.

• If the jury decides Harris should serve any prison time, she will have to serve at least half her sentence before she is eligible for parole. This is because the jury found this morning that Harris used her Mercedes-Benz as a deadly weapon. That also means she cannot be released on bond while she appeals her conviction.

• If jurors find the murder was a crime of "sudden passion," the punishment could be reduced to two to 20 years in prison.

As the verdict was read, Clara Harris' two attorneys clutched her arms, but she showed no reaction. Two baliffs were stationed behind her in case of an emotional outburst.

Behind Harris was Lindsey Harris, the teenage stepdaughter who testified she had struggled to get out of the car as it crushed her father. She sat with her mother and stepfather and was expressionless. Gerald Harris, the father of the victim and a supporter of his daughter-in-law, was somber as he held his hand against his jaw.

Jurors in the three-week-long trial reached their decision at 9:15 a.m. after deliberating for around seven hours Wednesday and one hour today on their four options: acquitting the Lake Jackson dentist of all charges; convicting her of murder; convicting her of the lesser charge of manslaughter; or convicting her of the even less serious charge of criminally negligent homicide.

Even if the jury decides Clara Harris deserves no prison sentence, she may still face other repurcussions. The State Board of Dental Examiners could revoke or suspend her license, and she has already been sued for wrongful death by her stepdaughter's mother.

Clara Harris' intent on July 24 is at the heart of the case.

In her closing arguments, Prosecutor Mia Magness Magness told jurors they could find Harris guilty of murder even if they just believe she killed him knowing that what she was doing was dangerous to human life, such as firing a gun into a crowd.

She acknowledged that some jurors' hearts may go out to Harris, who was lied to and cheated on. Sympathy, however, is irrelevant to deciding guilt, she said.

"You can't help but feel sympathy," she said, "But you know? The solution is to get a divorce. David's bad judgment, his bad choices, shouldn't result in his death. Clara Harris should have simply sought a divorce.

"She should do like every other woman in Harris County and take him to the cleaners. Get his house, car kids - make him wish he were dead. But you don't get to kill him."

Lead defense attorney George Parnham told jurors his client loved her husband and, though she had suffered "deceptions upon deceptions," never meant to kill him.

"Had she intended to kill David, her husband, would she ever have taken her stepdaughter with her?" Parnham asked. "It never would have been imagined."

Trial testimony revealed that the 17-year-old stepdaughter, Lindsey Harris -- a key prosecution witness -- spent most of July 24 with Clara Harris and was in her Mercedes-Benz when it struck and killed the Clear Lake orthodontist.

Parnham argued that Harris would not have been able to see her husband, who was standing outside his lover's sport utility vehicle in the parking lot of the Nassau Bay Hilton, in time to stop.

As she circled him while he lay on the pavement, Parnham said, alluding to scenes captured on videotape by a private investigator, the circles grew progressively tighter.

"After the third circle, she parks right next to the body," he said. "She kneels next to David and begs him to stay with her. And you know, the turns missed him."

Parnham reminded jurors of testimony from David Harris' mother, father and brother, all of whom agreed that Clara Harris loved her husband.

Magness, however, pointed out that not all of Clara Harris' relatives are standing by her. Lindsey Harris testified for the prosecution that her stepmother had vowed to "hit" her husband seconds before she stomped on the accelerator and sped in his direction.

Magness also reminded jurors of numerous eyewitnesses who testified David Harris was run over two or more times. She cited the testimony of a county medical examiner who said autopsy evidence did not support the defense's one-runover scenario.

Magness called for a murder conviction and pointed out that killing someone is still murder, even if the attacker "lost it."

"It's the momentary loss of respect for human life and taking it. Did she lose it? You bet."

"Faced with the truth, she attacked," Magness said. "But it wasn't enough to hit him; she had to punish him. So she ran over him again and again. No doubt, she was sorry when she was done.

"The bottom line is this: She got mad, engaged in reckless, knowing conduct, and David is dead because of it. Though you've heard her called a good mother, a loving spouse, a good dentist, at this point it's time to call her what she is.

"And that's a murderer."

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