Defendant guilty in Turlock stabbing and arson; sanity trial still to come

rahumada@modbee.comJune 25, 2014 

A jury on Wednesday found a defendant guilty of second-degree murder for stabbing a 25-year-old man in Turlock. Nicholas John Harris also was convicted of arson for burning the victim’s car as the injured man staggered to a nearby home for help.

The same jurors must now determine whether Harris was suffering from mental illness when he fatally stabbed Mark Anthony Henson. The sanity phase of the trial is scheduled to start July 8 in Stanislaus Superior Court.

The jury of nine women and three men began deliberations shortly after 4 p.m. Thursday. The jurors began their third day of deliberations at 10 a.m. Wednesday before they announced about 11:15 a.m. that they had reached a verdict.

Harris’ murder charge also included an enhancement for using a knife in the attack on Henson. If the jury decides Harris was not mentally ill when he stabbed Henson, the knife enhancement will lengthen his prison sentence.

After the verdict was announced, Judge Linda McFadden informed the jurors that their service wasn’t over just yet. The jury, along with three alternate jurors, will return to the courtroom next month to hear testimony and arguments concerning Harris’ mental health.

McFadden told the jury the trial’s sanity phase is expected to last a few days.

Harris testified in the trial that he has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and that playing video games such as “Grand Theft Auto” might have contributed to his mental state that night. “I believe I was having a manic episode,” he told the jury.

The stabbing occurred Aug. 12, 2008, in a neighborhood a few blocks east of California State University, Stanislaus.

Deputy District Attorney Michael Houston argued in the trial that Harris wanted to eliminate the man he believed had been bothering his then-girlfriend over the previous few weeks.

Harris found Henson sleeping in the front seat of his Mitsubishi. Henson woke up, and Harris walked around the car. The defendant testified that he pulled out his knife as he approached Henson, who was still seated in the car.

A struggle ensued. The prosecutor told the jury Harris repeatedly stabbed Henson in his back.

In his closing argument, Steven O’Connor, Harris’ attorney, asked the jury to find his client guilty of a lesser charge, such as voluntary manslaughter or involuntary manslaughter. He said the evidence shows his client acted out of fear for his life.

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.

The prosecutor argued that Henson did not have a knife during the deadly encounter. Houston said medics, firefighters and police investigators never found a butterfly knife.

Harris 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 could have prevented him from opening the butterfly knife properly and wounding Harris.

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

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.

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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