HOUSTON — A dentist who ran down her husband with her luxury car after finding him with another woman was convicted of murder Thursday, as jurors brushed off her claim that it was an accident.
The jury of nine women and three men took less than nine hours over two days to reach the verdict, delivered in a televised proceeding as Clara Harris' lawyers clutched her arms in support. Two jurors wept as the judge announced the unanimous decision, but Harris stared blankly ahead, her face pale and drawn.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday February 19, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 57 words Type of Material: Correction
Murder -- An article in Section A on Friday about Clara Harris -- convicted of murdering her unfaithful husband by running over him with her Mercedes-Benz in Houston -- incorrectly stated that Valentine's Day would have been their 10th wedding anniversary. It would have been their 11th anniversary.
The 45-year-old former beauty queen and mother of twin boys could be sentenced to life in prison for killing David Harris, a 44-year-old Houston orthodontist, on July 24. If she is found to have acted in the "heat of passion," her punishment could be from two to 20 years.
During a second round of testimony Thursday meant to help jurors decide Harris' punishment, defense lawyer George Parnham asked for probation rather than a prison term, casting it as a restrictive and appropriate punishment for a woman who had never before broken the law.
Prosecutor Mia Magness, who dismissed probation as an insufficient consequence of murder, called one witness to the stand Thursday: Lindsey Harris, David Harris' 17-year-old daughter from an earlier marriage. Lindsey, who testified against her stepmother during the trial, was in the passenger seat of the Mercedes-Benz when Harris ran over her husband.
Though Lindsey lives in Ohio with her mother, she spent summers and holidays with her father and Clara Harris. She has filed a wrongful death suit against her stepmother.
After her father's death, Lindsey said, her grades dropped and her interest in cheerleading evaporated. She broke up with her boyfriend and is estranged from her grandparents -- David Harris' parents -- "because they forgave Clara for what she did."
"I don't know why they're doing this to my poor dad," she said.
Lindsey testified that in the weeks following the killing, the numbness slowly turned to depression. She sought help from a counselor and medication, but it was all too much.
"I tried to slit my wrists" more than once, she said. At this, Clara Harris took a sharp breath and began to cry. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, Lindsey," she called out, standing as the weeping teenager and jurors were led from the courtroom.
Harris has cried throughout the trial, annoying prosecutors, who claimed it was a bid for juror sympathy. Denying a prosecution motion to remove Harris from the courtroom for the latest outburst, Judge Carol Davies addressed the red-eyed Harris. "I will give you one last chance," she said. "Don't blow it or you will be out of this courtroom."
"Thank you, your honor," Harris said softly.
As he did during the trial, Gerald Harris -- David's father -- took the stand Thursday to explain why he supports his daughter-in-law. He denied Lindsey's contention that his son's multimillion-dollar estate was the motivating force.
"This tragedy was a very strong blow against our family," said Harris, a former high school principal. "But God forgave us for our sins. We feel like a member of our family has erred and that we should forgive that.
"She is a member of my family, and I would not turn away from her," he said.
"God's grace and forgiveness is given if asked for, but it doesn't mean there aren't consequences for our actions," Magness, the prosecutor, said.
In response to a question from Magness, Harris said that Clara Harris was an excellent candidate for probation.
"Would she do community service?" Magness asked.
"Yes," Harris said.
"Would she abide by the law?" she asked.
"Would she get a job and support her dependents?"
"Then a sentence of probation wouldn't change her life, would it?" she said. "It's asking her to do what she was already doing [before the murder]."
Parnham called seven character witnesses, including the pastor who presided over David Harris' open-casket funeral. As they spoke fondly of their friend and neighbor, many witnesses choked back tears, looking anywhere but at Harris as she fought to compose herself. Her supporters elsewhere in the courtroom also wept.
"It is distracting to see the sobbing that is going on," Davies said as she instructed people to remain quiet.
The jury will deliberate punishment today, on what would have been Clara Harris' 10th wedding anniversary.
Many people thought Harris had a perfect marriage -- a devoted husband who doted on their two young boys. She was stunned when he confessed to an affair with an office receptionist, and enraged when she caught the pair, holding hands and beaming, as they emerged from a hotel elevator.
Shouting obscenities, Harris wrestled the other woman to the floor before she was escorted out by hotel employees. As she drove out of the lot, Harris accelerated in the direction of her husband, who was standing next to his girlfriend's car. Six eyewitnesses testified they saw Harris hit her husband, then repeatedly run over his body.