Defense attorney changes his mind about Turlock murder trial

rahumada@modbee.comJuly 15, 2014 

A defense attorney has changed his mind and is now willing to proceed with the sanity phase of a Turlock murder trial. Last week, he refused to continue with the case, claiming he was not competent.

Defense attorney Steven O’Connor said Tuesday that it’s still possible that he could be charged with contempt of court and face discipline by the State Bar of California.

O’Connor represents defendant Nicholas John Harris, who was found guilty last month of second-degree murder and arson in the stabbing death of Mark Anthony Henson.

The defense attorney asked to be removed from the case because he said he provided incompetent legal representation during the trial’s guilt phase. On Tuesday, O’Connor said that’s the way he felt at the time, but new information he has gathered in the past week has changed his thinking on the case.

O’Connor said the sanity phase can give him an opportunity to correct some of the errors he made in the trial’s guilt phase. He also said he will address those mistakes in a motion for a new trial, which can be filed only after a trial ends.

“My main concern is Mr. Harris and his fate,” O’Connor said Tuesday in the courthouse hallway. “And he is a good person, and we’re hoping for a good outcome.”

The defense attorney declined to comment further because the trial is ongoing.

Stanislaus Superior Court Judge Linda McFadden met with the attorneys on Monday. During the hearing, O’Connor informed the court that he had changed his mind.

Last week, the judge was forced to suspend the trial and remove O’Connor from the case after he refused to proceed. The judge appointed the county Public Defender’s Office to represent Harris.

McFadden said last week that this would be the first time she has had to report an attorney’s behavior to the State Bar, and she is required by law to do so. The judge also told O’Connor that he could face court sanctions, possibly in the form of a contempt of court charge.

On Tuesday, Deputy District Attorney Michael Houston said the judge allowed O’Connor to return to the case.

The prosecutor said McFadden will later determine whether O’Connor will be sanctioned by the court and whether she will notify the bar officials. He said those issues will be dealt with after the trial has concluded.

Houston told the judge last week that prosecutors also are required to report such behavior by an attorney to the State Bar. On Tuesday, he declined to comment on whether the District Attorney’s Office has notified bar officials of O’Connor’s behavior in court.

McFadden scheduled the trial’s sanity phase to start Aug. 12. It is expected to last a few days before the jury begins its deliberations.

The same jury that convicted Harris will decide whether he was suffering from mental illness when he stabbed Henson.

The judge on Tuesday informed the jurors that Harris has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and that they will hear testimony about the defendant’s mental health.

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.

The prosecutor 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 that Harris repeatedly stabbed Henson in the back.

In his closing argument, O’Connor 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.

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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