Jury begins deliberations in Turlock murder trial

rahumada@modbee.comJune 19, 2014 

A prosecutor told a jury on Thursday that Nicholas John Harris stabbed Mark Anthony Henson in the back repeatedly while holding a towel over his face to muffle the victim’s screams.

Deputy District Attorney Michael Houston argued that Harris wanted to eliminate the man he believed had been bothering his then-girlfriend over the previous few weeks. Along with wounds in Henson’s back, the prosecutor said, Harris used his knife to slash the back of Henson’s head.

“That is personal,” Houston said about the head wound. “It is not self-defense.”

The defendant testified that he did not intend to stab or kill Henson. He said he intended to burn the man’s car to send him a message, but the plan changed when Henson pulled out a butterfly knife.

Steven O’Connor, Harris’ attorney, told the jury his client is not guilty of murder. He argued that a charge less serious than murder is more applicable to the evidence, which shows his client acted out of fear for his life.

“What he was conscious of was simply fear and terror,” O’Connor told the jurors.

Harris is on trial accused of murder and arson in Henson’s death. The stabbing occurred Aug. 12, 2008, in a neighborhood a few blocks east of California State University, Stanislaus, in Turlock.

The jury of nine women and three men began deliberations shortly after 4 p.m. Thursday. The jurors were expected to continue deliberating today.

Before the deliberations began, the attorneys presented their closing arguments Thursday.

Harris has claimed Henson was stalking a woman the defendant was dating at the time. He testified that he was going to burn Henson’s Mitsubishi to get Henson to back off.

The prosecutor argued that Henson did not have a knife during the deadly encounter. Houston said medics, firefighters and police investigators testified that they never found a butterfly knife. The knife used in the stabbing of Henson belonged to Harris, the prosecutor said.

“They searched the crime scene, they never found (a butterfly knife). They searched the car, they never found it,” the prosecutor told the jurors.

The defendant testified that Henson hit him with the knife, but he “miraculously” was not cut or stabbed during the struggle.

O’Connor suggested that maybe the near-fatal level of morphine Henson had in his body at the time of his death could have prevented him from opening the butterfly knife properly and wounding Harris. “It makes sense given the how intoxicated he was,” the defense attorney argued.

After the stabbing, Henson walked away injured. The defendant then poured gasoline on the car’s roof and hood; he testified that he lit the car on fire using a lighter, burning himself in the process.

Harris said he then went home and washed his clothes and his knife sheath twice. He also washed blood off his knife’s blade, using soap and water.

Henson knocked on the door of a nearby home on Bennington Avenue, asking for help. That’s where authorities found him shortly after 1 a.m. Police discovered Henson’s car burning nearby. Henson was taken to a hospital, where he died.

The defense attorney told the jury that there’s no doubt his client is guilty of arson. But they should decide whether he’s guilty of voluntary or involuntary manslaughter, not murder.

“No one is saying that Mr. Harris acted reasonably. We’re not saying that,” O’Connor said to the jurors.

The prosecutor argued that Harris is guilty of first-degree murder. He said Harris went to the neighborhood three times to look for Henson’s car and had an opportunity to walk away without Henson ever knowing he was there.

But the defendant was a week away from joining the Marines, and he felt he had to do something to protect his girlfriend, Houston said. “Now, he had an opportunity to get rid of Mark Henson once and for all.”

Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at rahumada@modbee.com or (209) 578-2394. Follow him on Twitter @ModBeeCourts.

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