HOUSTON - A woman who ran over her cheating husband outside the hotel where they married a decade earlier wants her murder conviction overturned, saying evidence that she accidentally struck him was excluded from her trial.
Clara Harris, 46, was sentenced to 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine last year for killing David Harris in July 2002 after finding him at a suburban Houston hotel with his mistress.
A three-judge panel from the 1st Court of Appeals in Houston heard arguments Wednesday.
Harris' attorneys said the court erred by not allowing jurors to see a videotape and virtual reality re-creation of her car's route in the parking lot that night. They say excluding the tapes prevented Harris from presenting a complete defense.
"If, in fact, the jury would have seen that exhibit, I think that a substantial question is raised that ... they wouldn't have thought that she ran over him again and again. Clara did not intentionally strike David and did not run over him repeatedly," her attorney, Mac Secrest, told the panel. "Her intention was to hit the vehicle. Her intention never was to strike anybody."
Additionally, Secrest claims the court kept defense attorneys from impeaching the testimony of David Harris' teenage daughter, Lindsey, who was in the Mercedes-Benz with her stepmother when her father was repeatedly run over. The teenager testified against Clara Harris.
Clara Harris' attorneys also say the state district judge should have allowed jurors to consider reckless driving as a lesser offense and that defense attorneys' should have been able to make opening and closing arguments in the trial's punishment phase.
Prosecutors dispute each of the contentions.
"We believe it was an intentional act from the moment she saw him," said Kevin Keating, a Harris County assistant district attorney. "The jury saw the defense theory, and the jury rejected it."
Keating said the omitted evidence had problems "that created a very high risk of unfair prejudice." He said the videotapes were a "two-edged sword" that could have misled jurors.
"The CSI effect that you hear about that juries have an expectation and an understanding that computer animation is right. That when you see it in computer animation, it must be that way," Keating said.
Proper rules were not followed in attempts to impeach Lindsey Harris' testimony, he said, and judges have discretion to determine how closing arguments are presented.
Additionally, "there was no evidence in the record from which the jury could have concluded (Clara Harris) was only guilty of reckless driving," and it was undisputed that she ran over her husband, Keating said.
"There was no evidence to suggest anything but her driving caused his death," Keating wrote in his brief to the court.
"We just hope that this is the beginning of her way home to the children," said an unidentified friend of Harris.
A defense motion to get Justice Sam Nuchia off the case failed. Local 2 first reported that the defense wanted him removed from the case after he allegedly made remarks highly prejudicial to any defendant's right to an appeal.
"It really is a shame. In my view, it casts a pall, if you will, over these proceedings because we should have been afforded an opportunity to develop evidence," Secrest said.
The appeals court will probably take 60 to 90 days to issue an opinion in the case.
Local 2 legal analyst Brian Wice said Harris' chances for an appeal are good.
"If the three-judge panel that heard arguments in Clara Harris' appeal today decides this case on the law and the facts, nothing more and nothing less, then I think this conviction ought to be reversed. I think that the importance of the evidence was excluded, not only impacted Clara's ability to get a fair trial on a guilt-innocence stage, but certainly accounted for the fact that jurors assessed the maximum possible punishment during the penalty phase," he said.
Clara Harris will be eligible for parole after serving 10 years. She faced up to life in prison, but drew a lesser penalty because jurors found that she was driven by "sudden passion" to run down her orthodontist husband.
Harris is in Gatesville, about 35 miles west of Waco, at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Mountain View Unit. She works as a Braille typist, translating books for the blind.
She recently saw her twin sons, who celebrated their sixth birthday.
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