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D.A. to probe lapses that led to murder-suicide

Man kills his estranged wife, who wasn't told of his release from jail.

January 09, 2008|Andrew Blankstein | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County prosecutors acknowledged Tuesday that they failed to inform a West Covina woman about a plea deal in December that allowed her estranged husband out of jail after he pleaded guilty to threatening her with a stun gun.

The lapse is one of several decisions the district attorney's office is investigating after Curtis Bernard Harris, 34, kidnapped Monica Thomas-Harris, 37, and killed her before taking his own life over the weekend at a Whittier motel.

The prosecutor in the case agreed to Harris' release on his own recognizance so that he could get his affairs in order before reporting to prison for a 16-month sentence. The prosecutor advocated for the release even though Harris had an extensive criminal record and despite a report by the county Probation Department concluding that Harris was "unsuitable for release."

"What I know about this case is that there are elements that concern me given his conduct before his arrest," said Pamela K. Booth, a branch supervisor who oversees the district attorney's office in Pomona. "What I know so far is that he showed a pattern of escalating violence against the victim."

It is normal procedure for prosecutors to inform victims in domestic abuse cases beforehand if the defendant is going to be released from custody. But for reasons that investigators are still trying to determine, that didn't happen in this case.

Rather, Thomas-Harris learned about her husband's release from unknown sources outside the courthouse. She came to court seeking help, with several witnesses saying she looked distraught. She met with prosecutor for 45 minutes, discussing whether she needed a "safety plan" and should stay at a shelter, Booth said.

Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley declined to comment specifically about the case. But in a statement, he said "the tragic murder of Monica Thomas-Harris is a matter of great concern," and that his office would seek to determine "whether there were any violations of office policy and/or failure to follow procedures established for these types of cases."

One of the key aspects of the district attorney's review will focus on the decision-making process that led to the plea deal, including why prosecutors did not do more to highlight -- and factor in -- Harris' background, Booth said.

The release was approved during a court hearing Dec. 21. The prosecutor, Deputy Dist. Atty. Samer Hathout, was sitting in for the original prosecutor, who was on vacation, Booth said. The judge, Tia Fisher, also was substituting for the case judge.

Hathout cleared the plea deal and release with her supervisor in the Pomona office, Booth said.

Investigators plan to take a hard look at whether officials in the district attorney's office could have postponed a decision on releasing Harris until the original prosecutor returned.

Another issue that will be examined is why prosecutors did not seek a criminal protective order against Harris that could have raised a possible red flag for those involved in the case, including the judge, Fisher, who accepted the plea deal.

Fisher was appointed as a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006 after serving for more than a decade as a Superior Court commissioner.

She heard 44 cases on the day that Harris was let out, said Superior Court spokesman Allan Parachini. He said the court accepted a "carefully negotiated plea agreement."

"It is not uncommon, and in general, judges believe that the process leading up to a plea agreement is thorough," Parachini said. "Typically, the terms of a plea agreement take into account the same issues the probation report examines, and typically a plea agreement would, in effect, trump a probation report."

Fisher has declined to comment about the case.

Court records show that Harris had a felony criminal record dating to at least 1993, when he was convicted in San Bernardino County of discharging a firearm in a public place and served 16 months in prison.

He and his wife were married in June 2001 and separated in October 2003, according to divorce papers filed in December 2005. About the same time as the divorce filing, Thomas-Harris and members of her extended family were granted a temporary restraining order against Harris after he allegedly threatened her and broke windows at her home.

Then, last November, Harris allegedly took his wife from a West Covina park and handcuffed her to furniture at a nearby hotel, according to West Covina police. She did not immediately report the incident, believing it would not happen again, police said.

Two days later, Harris showed up at his wife's workplace in the City of Industry, took her inside his car, bound her with duct tape and threatened her with a stun gun, police said. She escaped and reported both incidents to police, leading to his arrest Nov. 19.

As part of the plea deal, Harris was supposed to stay away from his wife. They were found dead Saturday morning after a Whittier motel manager tried to enter a room and found it blocked by furniture, said Los Angeles County coroner's spokesman Craig Harvey.

The manager was able to push the door slightly forward and spotted a woman lying on the floor bleeding from an apparent gunshot wound and called 911, Harvey said. Whittier police later determined that Harris had shot his estranged wife and then turned the gun on himself.

Booth said she would have to wait for a full accounting of the facts in the investigation before "determining the level of accountability we need to accept."

But she added that the death has shaken all involved in the case.

"They are looking in the mirror. What did I do? What could I have done differently. . . . These are all very dedicated people," she said.

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andrew.blankstein @latimes.com

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